Giovanna Pessi/Susanna Wallumrød: If Grief Could Wait (ECM 2226)

If Grief Could Wait

Giovanna Pessi
Susanna Wallumrød
If Grief Could Wait

Giovanna Pessi baroque harp
Susanna Wallumrød voice
Jane Achtman viola da gamba
Marco Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Recorded November 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile…

Harpist Giovanna Pessi and vocalist Susanna Wallumrød join forces with Jane Achtman on viola da gamba and Marco Ambrosini on the nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle). The songs of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Leonard Cohen (80 years old at the time of this review), Nick Drake (1948-1974), and Wallumrød herself are subjects of this unforgettable disc. Drawing on the early music assemblage to which she so artfully contributed in Rolf Lislevand’s Diminuito, but also the genre-breaking experiments of Christian Wallumrød (through whom she met the pianist’s younger sister, Susanna), Pessi describes without words as much as Wallumrød with. Together, they open rear doors into vintage houses, rummaging through dust-covered artifacts until the spirit of each becomes obvious. Only then do they press RECORD.

Portrait of Grief

Among the Purcell selections are references to his opera The Fairy-Queen (“The Plaint”), his incidental The Theater of Music (“If Grief Has Any Pow’r To Kill” and “O Solitude”) and Oedipus (“Music For A While”), and the anthemic Harmonia Sacra (“An Evening Hymn”). Through all of these runs a plaintive thread from which is hung ornaments that sound as spontaneous as they do plucked from the pond of antiquity in which they originated. Despite exploring the most resilient themes of song—death and love—their enchantment feels fresh by virtue of Stefano Amerio’s engineering, which cuts the harp’s glitter with shadow and spikes pools in forest glades with melancholy.

Of Cohen’s craft, which might seem unlikely company were it not for the similarly forested landscapes, we encounter two examples. Pessi and Wallumrød expand “Who By Fire” from its two-and-a-half-minute appearance on the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony—incidentally, a suitable descriptor for the present album’s reworking of the past—to a four-minute prayer (Cohen, too, tended to play the song for longer durations in live settings). The song’s morbid list of deaths, barely removed from its religious roots in the Unetanneh Tokef of Jewish liturgy, cuts an especially intimate silhouette. “You Know Who I Am” reaches back further to Cohen’s second album, Songs from a Room, released in 1969. Its poetry embraces a rare combination of vulnerability and fortitude that glistens as it beckons and turns the planets like elements of a larger-than-life mobile. All the more so for being so lovingly recreated here.

It is through such passion that Wallumrød the singer can be superseded only by Wallumrød the composer. Her rustic “The Forester” travels diagonally across fairy realms. Like an Arthur Rackham illustration come to life, it takes shape in leaves and brambles, flowing dresses and birdlike bodies. Her refrain of “Who are you?” explores curiosities of interaction much akin to Cohen’s. “Hangout,” too, reveals a songwriter keenly aware of spaces in which nature comes down like a mist and descends on those who breathe it in, so that they might exhale a language of dissolution.

Finally, Drake’s “Which Will,” off the tragically short-lived singer’s final album, Pink Moon (1972), is the flipside to “Who By Fire.” Its agile, seeking lyricism yearns for love in brighter places. As with the smattering of Purcell instrumentals that rounds out this disc, it cages dancing airs and sunrises within the cold hands of experience.

If Grief Could Wait is a must-have for fans of John Potter’s Dowland Project, and for those who appreciate the art of song, magnified.

(To hear samples of If Grief Could Wait, click here.)

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