Ketil Bjørnstad: The Light (ECM 2056)

The Light

The Light

Randi Stene mezzo-sopran
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Recorded February/March 2007 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Ketil Bjørnstad, and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Longing itself is a pledge that what we long for exists.”
–Karen Blixen

Ketil Bjørnstad has left a nuanced yet indelible trail through ECM’s forest, leading to the beacon that is The Light. The more he creates, the less ornamental his music becomes, so that here we have distilled melodies and grander human themes that can breathe. Subtitled “Songs Of Love And Fear,” this album is essentially his second for the label as nominal leader, following 1993’s Water Stories. And while many subsequent collaborations, including his classic sessions among the “Sea” quartet (with David Darling, Terje Rypdal, and Jon Christensen), have rendered water his theme par excellence, now he treads the currents of an equally fundamental force of life.

As any Bjørnstad listener knows, the Norwegian pianist and composer has always had a flair for clear and evocative melodies, and fans will surely find their expectations well met in this album’s two song cycles. The strength of this record, then, lies in its personnel. Bringing new depth to the Bjørnstad aesthetic are singer Randi Stene’s and violinst Lars Anders Tomter, the second of whom adds a dash of reality to the dreamlike qualities of the piano-voice telos. Indeed, these songs would seem to reference the great lieder of European art music in spirit, albeit by means of a more translucent architecture.

Bjørnstad’s Fire Nordiske Sanger (Four Nordic Songs) represent three decades of writing, performing, and refinement. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the Norwegian word for “four” should mimic the English “fire,” for that is indeed the type of inner glow brought to every verse. The personal feel of “Grensen” (The Border) sets the tone. Written for his wife’s 50th birthday in 2006, it is the most recent of the four songs and reads like a love letter. “Sommernatt Ved Fjorden” (By The Fjord), on the other hand, was written in 1978 and has since become, much to the composer’s surprise, a favorite on the Norwegian pop charts. Imagistic contrasts also abound, as between the rustically inflected “Natten” (The Night), in which the viola takes on a narrative role, and the cinematic “Sommersang” (Summer Song), which follows the emotions of its protagonist—the song was, in fact, written for Stene—with the precision of a tracking shot.

The album’s remainder and title piece sets eleven poems by John Donne (1572-1631). While the vagueness of Donne’s poetry has always been key to its appeal, here it is leveled by the music’s even keel, balancing absence with substance and stillness with life.

In songs like “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” “The Dream,” and “The Prohibition,” the words teeter between surrender and command, while in “Air And Angels,” “Love’s Alchemy,” and “Break Of Day,” love assaults the eyes like two transparencies of the same image bumped slightly askew. Nevertheless, the connective spirit of Bjørnstad and Tomter holds on to a vision of unity in the shadow of Stene’s voice, especially in their instrumental interlude, “Lamentoso.”

Moments of unity abound elsewhere. “The Flea” is both one of Donne’s most intriguing poems and receives here an equally vivid melodic treatment. “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being The Shortest Day” is a morsel of comparable skill, weighted by the pall of a long winter, that finds its renunciations answered in “The Sun Rising,” in which rooted pianism evokes the grip of Donne’s passions. Finally, “A Hymn To God The Father” points to the poet’s devout core, where faith in heavenly blessing wraps his fears of death until they dissolve. This is where the album’s light truly shines through, exploring through prayer a love secluded from a world that would pick it clean if given the chance.

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