Here is Delphian's second volume as part of the "European Music Archaeology Project" (EMAP), the long term exploration of Europe's common heritage through sounds and music, from which Classical Net recently reviewd Spellweaving (Delphian DCD34171)). Ice and Longboats looks at the Vikings, featuring both music from (closer to) our own times inspired by and improvised on Viking instruments as well as notated songs and instrumental items from the earliest centuries of Christianity in Scandinavia.
This is an exciting, enthralling and deeply satisfying CD with over an hour and a quarter's varied, evocative and imaginatively-conceived and precisely-realized works – 29 in all, and none lasting more than six and a half minutes, more than half under two. The Swedish "early" music group, Ensemble Mare Balticum, specializes in music to the Seventeenth century chiefly from the Baltic region.
The CD aims vividly to sketch – and then judiciously add color to – cultural life during the early centuries of the Christian portion of the Viking era, which lasted from the Eighth to the Eleventh centuries. Because written sources are scarce, archaeological evidence and recreation, informed speculation and experimentation have to be employed to build the specifics of musical life and performance… we do know that music and dance were important to the Vikings and their religious practices. Written folk melodies and texts came much later. Even pictographical representations of instruments are limited.
Yet it is possible to understand the music of the frozen north as enjoyed by those who – despite setting sail in their longboats (hence the CD's title) over a very wide area of Europe and Western Asia – were actually primarily farmers. Domestic activities were central to their communities, it seems; and these included some beautiful, subtle and sophisticated music. Does Jesus Christus nostra salus [tr.22] really suggest bearded mayhem? The bell, horns and lyres were used for sure; as well as rattles and a clutch of known variants in the wind and string families. Although no drums have been excavated, it seems likely that they were not uncommon. In the earliest Nordic poetry and sagas, there are of course references to singing, playing and dancing.
This CD has used reconstructions of finds from the region, often from actual artefacts and instruments well before the accepted start of the Viking Age in c.800: a bone flute, animal horn, hornpipe, a six-stringed lyre, the Nordic bowed lyre, or strkharpa and the so-called lurs, a wooden trumpet.
The seven-member Ensemble Mare Balticum chose examples of the instruments and the presumed genres (duet, recitation, dance accompaniment and so on) to provide contrast as the CD progresses. Yet it's not intended to be merely illustrative. It's (also) music to enjoy in its own right. It ranges from easily accessible (like the Sequentia "Lux illuxit" [tr.6]), rhythmical (the two Estampie "Gerro transecuit" [tr.14] and "Pax patrie" [tr.15]) and familiar music, through scarcely adorned chant (Diem festum veneremur [tr.29]) to the brief yet highly evocative solo pieces (the Gethornslt [tr.20] on an unpretentious animal bone) to the reconstructions like "In the Village: Musical Pastimes and Evening" [tr.s 2,3].
These are versatile musicians who sing and play with as much detachment as conviction. There is no attempt to emulate "folksy abandon". Rather, the singing and playing of Ensemble Mare Balticum invites close attention in the knowledge that it will be repaid on each successive listening because – for all its uncommon speculative origins – these are substantial and realistically produced pieces. Even the improvisations have next to no sens of being impressionistic, or of relying on any noticeable approximation; all are trenchant and credible explorations.
It would be wrong to describe the approach of Ensemble Mare Balticum as anything other than inspired, confident and outgoing. They sing and play from a position of really having absorbed and worked to relate to the distant world of a culture (that of the Vikings) forced to adapt to harsh conditions and (so) which itself exuded confidence. They feel no need whatsoever to argue for or try and push any advocacy of this plangent, intense yet ultimately beautiful and appealingly immediate music. Nor do they try to map any kind of potentially spurious "timelessness" onto it. They simply perform it as twenty-first century experts can (and must) perform it for all its remoteness. And celebrate the essence of its sound world in such a way that it becomes approachable and then familiar to us too.
The acoustic of the CD is atmospheric without intruding. It's that of a church dating from the twelfth century but rebuilt in the middle of the nineteenth in the small village of Oppmanna near Kristianstad in eastern Scania, Sweden. This must be as close to an authentic locus of the vocal and instrumental music known to the Vikings as we are likely to get now. And the "businesslike" approach by the Ensemble in all the works on this CD propels us forward with the energy and impetus to travel which we estimate would have infused most aspects of Viking life. It does not dwell on novelty and the particularities of a world whose actual smells, tastes and sounds can only be imagined. But it's a compelling world, brought to life with legitimacy and professionalism.
The 32-page color booklet that comes with the CD, for example, explains the musical context (few listeners are likely to be familiar with the music of this era), contains all the texts (in Latin and medieval Scandinavian, with the English) and photographs of the instruments, biographies of the performers and a historical introduction. If you're curious about some of the earliest music from Scandinavia which we have, want to add to your re-assessment of the Vikings by understanding creativity from that era, or just want to hear clean, penetrating and revealing performances of music from a less-known corner of the epoch, you should not miss this CD.
Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey