Ketil Bjørnstad/Svante Henryson: Night Song (ECM 2108)

Night Song

Night Song

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Svante Henryson violoncello
Recorded January 2009 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist, composer, and author Ketil Bjørnstad has been long obsessed with Schubert, going so far as to sneak into his school gymnasium as a teenager to play him. “Schubert’s almost naïve openness, his existential sense of wonder and his emotional passion make him at the same time both concrete and mythical,” says Bjørnstad in his liner text. Hence Night Song, which pays tribute to, and engages in dialogue with, the Austrian great. For this project he is joined by Svante Henryson, a multi-instrumentalist and musical chameleon who plays cello alongside Bjørnstad. And by “alongside” I mean exactly that, for the two musicians recorded, at producer Manfred Eicher’s request, as closely as possible, so as to avoid the divisive tendencies of headphones and glass partitions. Bjørnstad: “It is always special for a musician when an ECM production evolves through a dialogue with Manfred Eicher from the very beginning. It can perhaps be compared to what an actor feels, when working with a film director.”

Ketil Svante

The nature of this piano-cello pairing is, however, rather distinct from Bjørnstad’s acclaimed collaborations with cellist David Darling, despite the identical instrumentation. Like Darling, Henryson is a gentle-minded musician, one who whispers more than he sings in the title track, which bookends the album with an “Evening Version” and “Morning Version.” There is, however, in his own music (Henryson pens four of the album’s 16 tracks), an altogether idiosyncratic grace. His arpeggios are of the same planar existence as our own, whereas Darling’s seem to float up from the very earth. Songs (for that is indeed what they are) like “Fall” and “Tar” inhale light and exhale pure, cinematic description—which is to say, by means of a music as visible as it is audible. Henryson’s pizzicati in “Reticence” and “Melting Ice” add further layers of breath, activated by a brooding play of shadows.

Due to the Schubert connection (crystallized in the thinner air of “Schubert Said”), one might think that Night Song would sound more romantic, but like much of Bjørnstad’s chamber music it emotes from a heart seemingly teleported from the late Renaissance. The transitions marked out by tracks like “Visitor” and “Share” from inward prayer to full-throated incantation tickle the senses. To better manifest these transitions, Bjørnstad substantially expands his coverage of the keyboard (note the low range of “Edge” and, by contrast, the glittering rays of “Sheen”). Wherever he may be on the spectrum, he always performs with forgiveness. Henryson, too, unravels coils of life force in the hopeful “Serene” and, in the album’s most songlike turn, “Chain.” His precision in the latter is astonishing for its balance of trepidation and peace.

Bjørnstad’s music begs image, movement, and reconsideration of time. In this sense, Night Song may just be his most intimate recording yet, a gem of expression clawed in silver and carefully polished until it is worthy of being slipped on the finger of a hidden muse.

(To hear samples of Night Song, click here.)

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