Sinikka Langeland voice, kantele
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Kåre Nordstoga organ
Recorded February 2008, Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim
Engineer: Ove Berg
Editing: Ove Berg, Jean Lewis (Suite, Chaconne)
An ECM Production
ECM may be nominally dedicated to contemporary music, but Johann Sebastian Bach has been a vital touchstone in its classical recordings. Whether acting as a foil to modern works in Thomas Demenga’s multi-album traversal of the Cello Suites or as the exclusive subject of fresh interpretations by Keith Jarrett and András Schiff at the keyboard, Bach has either existed as a point of reference or as a master being reckoned with anew toward the asymptote of definitive interpretation. Only Christoph Poppen has gone a step further, weaving Bach into the work of Anton Webern (as Webern himself had done) and exploring hidden chorales of the solo violin literature. That was, until Maria’s Song, which is by far, and may always be, ECM’s profoundest reckoning with Bach.
Previously for the label, Norwegian folk singer and kantele (15-string Finnish table harp) virtuoso Sinikka Langeland had recorded Starflowers and The Land That Is Not, both of which sought to explore the shared heart of folk and jazz around the heliocenter of Langeland’s full-throated voice. This time she is joined by Lars Anders Tomter, previously of Ketil Bjørnstad’s The Light, who plays a Gasparo da Salò viola made in 1590, apparently one of the world’s finest examples of the instrument. With them is Kåre Nordstoga, playing the 30-register Baroque organ of Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral. Nordstoga is the principal organist at Oslo Cathedral and a Bach specialist, having performed two complete traversals of the composer’s organ music over 30 Saturday recitals in 1992 and 2000.
The program is a mixture of Marian texts from Luke set to folk melodies and medieval ballads, then threaded through the loom of Bach’s hymns (and the Concerto in d minor, BWV 596) at the organ. In addition, Tomter plays viola arrangements of the Solo Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (played an octave higher) and the Chaconne from the Solo Violin Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004 (transposed to g minor). A few things make this a remarkable project. First is Langeland’s immensity of knowledge, on which she draws to assemble a program of such originality that it feels as seamless as its pairings of word and melody. Second is her voice. Possessed of a luminescent, youthful energy, her intonation makes scripture feel like a sheaf of grain distilled into something digestible by the soul. Last is the utter respect with which the musicians perform, respect that emits a sacred light of its own. And no wonder, considering that the spirit of these texts was at one time forbidden in Norway, where the Reformation of 1537 disbanded monasteries and consigned church relics and artifacts, including depictions of Mary, to state storehouses. Worship of the Virgin thus became the stuff of hidden messages and codes, and in these songs Langeland has enacted their recovery.
“Lova lova Lina” is the first encoding of Mary and, like many of Langeland’s segues throughout the disc, is sung with only the cathedral’s resonant air as accompaniment. Along with the “Ave Maria,” it reappears transformed. At times, Langeland’s fingers find their way to the kantele, both as support for the voice and as a voice unto itself. A reprise of “Lova lova Lina” is especially potent for marrying the two. Narratively inflected singing throughout makes of the shuffled program something of a passion play, in which dialogues between Heaven and Earth come to define the natural order of things. One might expect the viola to brighten Bach’s solo cello writing, when in fact it casts a deeper, more spectral shadow. The feeling is distinctly cyclical, as emphasized by the vocal surroundings, and reaches open-gated confluence in the mighty Chaconne, over which the “Ave Maria” is dutifully papered. The organ, too, sings as it speaks, lifting Langeland in “Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar,” BWV 607 and, on its own, ascending the spiral staircase of the “Fuga sopra il Magnificat,” BWV 733 at hub of it all. Even the Concerto transcription unleashes the Holy Spirit at an intersection of past and future. As Langeland recalls in her liner notes, “While we played our way through time, the Nidaros Cathedral reflected the spiritual currents of a thousand years. The large Russian icon stared at us as we began to record. The dawn light poured through the huge rose window as we finished the night’s recording.” To be sure, we can feel all of these things…and more.