For many years now I’ve been taking an enthusiastic interest in Scandinavian music: not just that of my long-term favourites Sibelius and Nielsen, whose work I’ve adored since I first discovered it in my teens, but more contemporary fare, particularly in that fertile territory situated somewhere between jazz, folk, chamber music and experimental improvisation. It’s no accident that a lot of Scandinavian music ended up on my list of recommendations when the back catalogue of the ECM label was made available for streaming; nor was it much of a surprise (to me, at any rate) when one of my first ever blogs – about the Nils Økland Band – was about music from Norway, a country which punches way above its weight musically. (The great jazzer John Surman, who lives in Oslo, once told me that the city contains more fine musicians per square mile than any other town he’s encountered – judging by the the stuff I’ve been listening to over the last few decades, I’m strongly inclined to believe him.)
So as soon as I saw that the closing concert in last weekend’s ‘Baroque at the Edge’ festival was by keyboards wizard, composer and bandleader Jon Balke and violinist-fiddler Bjarte Eike, I couldn’t resist buying tickets, even though there was little indication in the festival’s promotional materials as to what, exactly, would be on offer at the gig. I hadn’t seen either musician play live before (though I have a lot of Balke’s CDs, on a couple of which – Diverted Travels and Siwan – Eike can be heard), but I need not have worried: the concert was astonishingly good.
Invited by artistic director Lindsay Kemp to participate in the festival, Eike – eminent in the baroque field, as well as being the driving force behind the acclaimed Alehouse Sessions – proposed that he should come up with a programme in collaboration with Balke, whose work, while often described as ‘jazz’, is pleasingly difficult to categorise. (The 2009 album Siwan and the recent Nahnou Houm, for instance, combine baroque, folk, jazz, North African and Iberian music in fascinating ways.) It seems the pair didn’t really know too much about what they were going to do until the last few days before the concert, when they got together in Balke’s snowbound cabin in the Norwegian mountains and worked out what to include in the programme; even the day before the gig, apparently, decisions were still being made during rehearsals. All they knew was that it would involve, for Eike, a violin and a Hardanger fiddle, and for Balke, a piano, a harpsichord and electronics. And, of course, baroque music would feature.
So what we got was music by Biber, Bach, Dowland and other composers I’d barely heard of (Holborne, Pandolfi Mealli, Schopp), along with material by Balke – the lovely ‘Falling’, from Diverted Travels – and Eike, some Norwegian folk music and, by way of an encore, a heartrendingly beautiful rendition of ‘Lament for the Death of His Second Wife’ by the 18th-century Scottish fiddler Niel Gow. What we didn’t get, mercifully, was the type of meandering ‘crossover’ fare you get from some baroque advocates which consists of endless noodling improvisations over a repeated four-chord sequence. This was far more original, far more varied, and far more exciting.
Sometimes the original music was treated fairly straightforwardly; sometimes it was fragmented, reordered and remixed with all manner of echoes, delays, rumbles, growls, undertones and overtones. Balke’s electronics were extremely subtle, and were party inspired by the architecture and sonic qualities of the venue itself (the splendid LSO St Luke’s, around which were positioned, it seems, six speakers); his keyboards playing, too, was unflashy, restrained, and always the perfect accompaniment or alternative to Eike’s meticulous, quietly virtuoso violin. The music would contract and expand, stutter and flow, waltz and sprint, slither and strut, whisper and whirl; the Bach emerged magically as if out of a mist, while Dowland’s ‘Lachrimae’ was wonderfully tender. The concert, constantly surprising, really felt as if it was being created in and of the moment, yet Eike and Balke always clearly knew where they were heading, even if they hadn’t quite decided precisely how they were going to get there.
This duo experiment, then, was unusually fresh and new for the musicians, and even more so for the St Luke’s audience, who responded with understandable enthusiasm. One hopes the project will translate at some point to CD. In the meantime, for the next couple of weeks you can hear Eike and Balke talking about their work together, and playing Biber’s 1st Rosary Sonata and Gow’s Lament, on this edition of Radio 3’s In Tune.
Photograph of Jon Blake and Bjarte Eike at LSO St Luke’s by Geoff Andrew. You can find out more about Bjarte Eike at http://barokksolistene.com/bjarte/ and about Jon Balke at http://www.magnetic.no/page-5/ and https://www.ecmrecords.com/artists/1435046130/jon-balke