Arianna Savall & Petter Udland Johansen: Hirundo Maris (ECM New Series 2227)

Hirundo Maris

Arianna Savall
Petter Udland Johansen
Hirundo Maris – Chants du Sud et du Nord

Arianna Savall voice, gothic harp, Italian triple harp
Petter Udland Johansen voice, hardingfele, mandolin
Sveinung Lilleheier guitar, dobro, voice
Miquel Àngel Cordero double-bass, voice
David Mayoral percussion, voice
Recorded January 2011 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I fell in love by night, by moonlight beguiled.
If ever again I fall in love, let it be in the broad light of day.

Hirundo Maris is a landmark achievement on at least two counts. First, it literally marks land on either side of the North Seas, the currents of which linked Vikings, Catalans, Scots, and Sephardic Jews by lines of exploration and cultural exchange. Second, it spotlights the voice of Arianna Savall in ways that so recall her mother, Montserrat Figueras, with especial affection. Savall in fact dedicates this album to Figueras’s memory, to the “voice that sang to me and accompanied me from my very first heartbeat.” It’s a poignant undercurrent that might easily slip by the digital downloader without a CD booklet in hand, but one that imbues this sometimes-surprising bouquet of song with that much more generosity.

Fronting a seamless “jam band” aesthetic, the core duo of Savall (also a masterful harpist) and Petter Udland Johansen (singer, fiddler, mandolin player) elicits a seamless mash-up of early music and folk influences. In the latter vein, Johansen offers traditional songs from the tundra. With spotlight thrown on his lyrical voice, he helms their passage with troubadourian intuition. A handful of Norwegian examples boasts the consummate balladry of an unconsummated love in “Om kvelden” (In the Evening) and the dancing strains of “Ormen Lange” (The Long Serpent), which details the building of a great ship by the same name (a mood and image paralleled in Johansen’s bare rendition of the Scottish folk song “The Water Is Wide”). Other notables flower beneath overcast skies. There’s the sad tale of Bendik, who loves the king’s daughter, Årolilja, and is ordered to be killed when he is found out. In this song, Johansen’s ashen fiddling gives way to piercing, constellatory light as he trades verses with Savall in a complementary atmosphere. There’s also the “Trollmors vuggesang” (Mother Troll’s Lullaby), a Swedish children’s song by Margit Holmberg (1912-1989), in which the protagonist sings nonsense syllables to her eleven little trolls.

Throughout the program, these two gorgeous voices are joined by guitarist Sveinung Lilleheier, bassist Miquel Àngel Cordero, and percussionist David Mayoral, whose presence is felt in evocations from the mainland. Five traditional Catalan tunes highlight the syllogistic “El mestre” (The Schoolmaster), the liltingly harmonized “Josep i Maria” (Joseph and Mary), and artisanship of “El mariner” (The Sailor). The latter tells of a maid who sits embroidering by the sea. When she runs out of silk, a sailor lures her aboard with promises of more. He sings her to sleep. She awakes, only to discover he is the son of England’s king and means to marry her. With its synthetic ocean waves and tactile harping, it is the album’s most evocative song. Also evocative is the “Tarantela” by 17th-century Spanish harpist Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz. The crispness of Savall’s rendition only emphasizes its lustrous antiquity.

Savall’s craftwork comes into greater focus in her original tune “Le Chant des étoiles,” which joins her harp in a sparkling instrumental of plucks and plumes. Johansen also contributes an original: the enchanting “Penselstrøk” (Brushstroke). “The dream is lost in a moment of joy,” he sings, “and for you it could be the last.” And with those words, he cloaks the sun in dusk. The collection rounds out with three Sephardic traditionals, including “Buenas noches” (Sweet Nights), which shines with steel-string inflections, and “Morena me llaman” (Dark One, They Call Me), another song of ship and sail. This genre favorite receives a downtrodden treatment here, replete with sparse instrumental reflections throughout.

Although this very special album bears the subtitle “Songs from the South and North,” by its end one feels the futility of mortal instruments to gauge directions across time. It is, instead, a chronicle not of geographies per se but of the transitions between them.

(To hear samples of Hirundo Maris, click here.)

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