Nils Økland/Sigbjørn Apeland: Lysøen – Hommage à Ole Bull (ECM 2179)

Lysøen

Nils Økland
Sigbjørn Apeland
Lysøen – Hommage à Ole Bull

Nils Økland violin, Hardanger fiddle
Sigbjørn Apeland piano, harmonium
Recorded September 2009 and January 2010 at Villa Lysøen, Hordaland, Norway
Recording engineer and editing: Audun Strype
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

Fiddler Nils Økland and pianist Sigbjørn Apeland offer a studied take on the legacy of Ole Bull (1810-1880), a violinist of classical renown who brightened the folk music of his native Norway like no other musician after him. The present album is named for the little island off Norway’s western coast where Bull built a summer home for his wife and daughter, a place he’d longed for since childhood and where he would die only a few weeks upon realizing his dream to live there. Økland and Apeland were privileged to have access to instruments once owned and played by the Bull family for this recording, the first ever to be made at the Lysøen villa. Taking inspiration from the man Edvard Grieg once called a musical savior, the duo paints an idiosyncratic portrait using traditional and original pigments between daubs of Bull’s own, and all with a flair for adlibbing that is true to form. On that note, the musicians cite ECM greats Arild Andersen, Jan Garbarek, and, more recently, Frode Haltli as inspirations for likewise tapping folk veins in their improvisatory mining.

Traditionals take up most of the canvas, with the appropriately titled “Stusle Sundagskvelden” (Dismal Sunday Evening) opening in somber gesso. Its relay between fiddle and piano crafts a mood so potent, one almost feels it as a mist. Along with “I Rosenlund under Sagas Hall” (In the Rose Grove Under the Hall of Saga), it is the only folk track to employ this instrumental combination. The latter is a dirge-like piece that transitions into the famous “La Folia” without missing a beat. The rest, with two exceptions, pair fiddle with Bull’s own harmonium. This joining of forces—one earthly, one heavenly—is well suited to the material, which ranges from the rustic strains of “Sylkje-Per” (and its solo piano variation) and “Jeg har så lun en hytte” to the ethereal “Eg ser deg utfor gluggjen” (I See You Outside the Window).

The Bull songbook, such as it is, gives only barest insight into the kind of musician he must have been, but in the hands of these players I gather we come closer than by any other available means. Of the four tunes featured, “La Mélancolie” is another shaded, inward tracing. It’s also utterly beautiful and, in this arrangement, is possessed of a cinematic glow. The harmonium adds unusual propulsion to such pieces, and to others, like “Sæterjentens Søndag” (The Herdgirl’s Sunday), a similarity of extremes, from the subterranean to the extraterrestrial.

Økland and Apeland offer two duo originals. “Belg og slag” features tapping of the bow, which draws a line of inquiry to every answer. “Grålysning” (Daybreak) is a prettier circling of airs and sunlight. Økland’s solo “Solstraum” is reminiscent of Paul Giger’s Alpstein, its energies bright against Apeland’s “Tjødn,” a piano solo of eventide. The program rounds out with a fiddled rendition of Grieg’s famous “Solveigs sang.” At Økland’s bow, the strings sing this melody as if for the first time, even though, as with the rest, we feel that we have heard it before. Like Bull himself, it is a musical wanderer whose shadow leaves behind a trail to follow.

(To hear samples of Lysøen, click here.)

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