My first exposure to rímur came about when a recording by the Icelandic performer Steindór Andersen crossed my desk. Having wrapped my head around the forms and sounds in Andersen’s renderings of a traditional Icelandic form with strong foundations in medieval sources, I was intrigued by the idea of Trio Medieval tackling the same kind of material, given their own background in medieval music.
Let’s just say that this is not that.
Anna Marie Friman, in her short essay accompanying the disc, makes an important point for understanding what we’re hearing: “We will never know what the innumerable ancient songs and chants sounded like at the time, but we can let our imagination flow and let the timeless tales inspire us to create something new.”
One might take exception to the first part of her statement — there is enough scholarship, not to mention living tradition, to give us a good take on what it sounded like then — but what’s important for this collection is the “something new.”
The medieval inspiration for the music is evident in the first couple of selections, beginning with the “St. Birgitta Hymn: rosa rorans bonitatem.” We’re more or less firmly in the realm of plainsong here, but as the music progresses, it moves into a universe of its own: the voices move first into a kind of polyphony, without actually crossing that line, and Henriksen’s contributions on the trumpet serve, very quietly and subtly, to add yet another dimension of sound – it’s not quite jazz, but it’s certainly not from the middle ages. (I am reminded, in its spareness and circumstantial quality, of Kristian Blak’s Concerto Grotto and Drangar.)
One of the most striking characteristics of the album as a whole is the blending of the voices, not only those of the three singers (Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Berit Opheim), but Henriksen’s trumpet as well, which as often as not blends in so completely that it’s undetectable, until suddenly it is a presence in itself.
When all is said and done, this is elusive music: one can cite sources, influences, hold up details for inspection, but the final result is unique and quietly captivating. It’s one of those albums in which one can listen carefully for those gemlike details, or simply go with the flow.
(ECM Records, 2017)