Rímur: Trio Mediaeval Makes the Ancient Modern

Twenty-four years after The Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek recorded Officium, the first of their three haunting, century-crossing collaborations for ECM New Series, Trio Mediaeval has done something similar with trumpeter Arve Henriksen. On their latest ECM New Series album, Rímur, the vocal trio of Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fugiseth, and Berit Opheim teams up with Henriksen to produce timeless versions of chants, hymns, folk songs and improvisations based on Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish sources from earlier times.

Equal praise goes to the beauty of Rímur's early music made new, and the manner in which the recording captures magical wonder of the acoustic. Even heard as a watermarked Red Book download provided by ECM to music critics, the spaciousness and depth of the acoustic of Munich's Himmelfahrtskirche (Church of the Ascension) are something to marvel at. Switch to the hi-rez 24/96 download, and the voices become far more three-dimensional, the noise floor lower, and soundstage width and depth even more believable. With Rímur, ECM tonmeister (sound engineer) Peter Laenger shows himself the equal of those members of the Harmonia Mundi recording team past and present (including Peter McGrath) who continue to excel in capturing the clarity of voices and instruments resounding within a diffuse, highly reverberant church acoustic.

The music on Rímur is a mixture of devotional compositions and songs about far more secular concerns. That's another way of saying it's all about love, chaste and chased. To everything, Trio Mediaeval brings its rare blend of smooth, touchingly plaintive and pure vocalism.

When, on "Rosa rorans bonitatem," a 14th century Swedish hymn to St. Birgitta Hymn arranged by Trio Mediaeval and Henriksen, the women sing, "Rose bearing dew of goodness / start distilling drops of cleanness / . . . let drops of life's purity / fall into the valley of misery," their blend is so perfectly suited to devotional music that they seem incarnated to sing it. Henriksen's spare and tasteful improvisations, which sound less spacey than Garbarek's, are perfectly apt, and only serve to deepen the sacredness of the hymn.

On the recording's next hymn, from 17th century Norway, Henriksen's trumpet seems to express a prayerful cry toward the end of the 5-minute arrangement. The emotion is heightened by Friman's occasional jaunts on hardanger fiddle and, elsewhere, Fuglseth's injection of the drone of a shruti box. All three instruments add a cross-cultural, time-traveling dimension to Trio Mediaeval's pristine sound. When the women transition from monophonic, multi-octave chant to intriguing polyphony, as they do on Friman's arrangement of the traditional Swedish folk song, "Om ödet skulle skicka mig," their sound is exquisite.

Foreswearing the oft-encountered tendency to juxtapose slow repertoire with fast, the artists content themselves with frequent and unexpected key changes between pieces. Additional variety comes from the atmospheric choice to record Henriksen's intentionally breathy delivery, and to occasionally use trumpet-amplified breath as an instrument in and of itself.

Variety, however, is not a concern when musicianship and engineering meld to create a journey so mesmerizing. I'm not sure if any of the artists consciously intended this recording as a soft cushion for reverie, but if you do drift off and then return to a track as enchanting as "Du är den första"—a traditional Swedish shanty that speaks of love—you will realize that you are under Rímur's spell.

Tasteful simplicity is the bottom line of this recording. How fitting, then, to end with "Gammelkjerringvalsen," a wordless traditional Norwegian folk song whose melody says it all. Consider it a final invitation to succumb to the artistry of Trio Mediaeval and Arne Henriksen's Rímur.

clothes pen's picture

for a completely different music, just finished listening to Ali Farka Toure-Talking Timbuctu on my PS Audio system. that is one that will take your breath away as well. i have had this cd for 20 years and it took the PS front end to finally let me hear how good it is.

dalethorn's picture

I saw the price of $25 for the 96k album, 51 minutes long, and my first thought was "Are download prices taking a big jump?" - the last few 96k albums I purchased were around $18, and the $25 level has been at 192k resolution until now.

I considered getting the CD to save a few bucks, then I listened, and paid the $25. Sigh!