Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Trio Mediaeval @ Wigmore Hall, London

14 February 2011

It has become fashionable in recent years to fuse seemingly contrasting genres of music, either to make certain types of music more accessible, or to attempt to be innovative. Often this has varying degrees of success, but one of the groups that does it best is Trio Mediaeval, a female vocal trio from Scandinavia who teamed up with trumpeter Arve Henriksen for a unique programme at the Wigmore Hall.

The evenings concert programme comprised a mixture of medieval music, new commissions and improvisations, mostly accompanied by trumpet and electronics, played and manipulated by Henriksen. Works were performed in small groups, each work segueing into the next, and the singers utilised a variety of other instruments, from hand chimes to the traditional Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. The latter, set to a peculiar Setesdal tuning in this instance, brought its own eerie overtones for which the instrument is so widely regarded, adding a new dimension to the folk tunes it accompanied.

Highlights of the programme included the Norwegian medieval tune, Rolandskvadet, an upbeat dance-like ballad, performed with great energy and vivacity with a beautifully haunting, free and easy descant from Anna Maria Friman; Beata viscera, a piece of anonymous 13th-century English music enhanced with percussion; Eg veit i himmerik ei borg, another entrancing Norwegian hymn tune, after which the singers and trumpeter walked through the audience performing an enchanting improvisation, with a fantastic call-and-response interplay between the three solo singers, and some glitteringly ethereal contributions from the hand chimes that each singer carried.

One of the most exciting things about the performance was the singers extensive use of ornamentation, particularly in the medieval polyphony. It is highly likely that this music would have been ornamented during performances in the period it was written, but todays conventional practices mean that it is often sung note-for-note. Trio Mediaeval, and Linn Andrea Fuglseth in particular, used some incredibly virtuosic and impressive elaborations on the original melodies without detracting at all from the sense of line or shape of the phrase. In contrast to the tralling techniques used in the folk tunes (where singers create their own sounds using consonants and light vowels), which displayed extreme verbal control, the ornamentation highlighted the singers vocal virtuosity, and also introduced a new level of energy to the genre.

I have mixed feelings about trumpeter Arve Henriksens performance. Whilst he is an intelligent and innovative performer, I felt that occasionally he intruded a little too much on the singers performances, often needlessly doubling the alto line (which Torunn strem Ossum was perfectly capable of holding and projecting on her own) when it would have been much more effective for him to sit out those particular movements and let the singers take the limelight. A couple of special effects, including one where he simply blew air through his trumpet, were somewhat overused and lost their potency as the concert progressed.

However, when Henriksens additions deviated from the singers lines, his trumpet playing added an exciting new dimension to the performance, and he displayed fantastic skill when manipulating the accompanying electronics. His sense of humour and passion for the music really came through in some of the more traditional pieces, where he made good use of the stamp so common amongst Norwegian folk musicians. Henriksens performance of his own composition, Pi mosso, which alternated between trumpet passages and extended vocalises, was completely mesmerising, and drew the audience in to such an extent that many of them were singing along towards the close of the piece.

The vocal trio, founded fourteen years ago, still sound as fresh and energised as they did on their first album. Their immaculate blend and tuning brings a deep purity to the sound, particularly during their unison singing, and their perfect ensemble gives their performances with great polish. Their most energetic and immersive performances are those of the Norwegian folk tunes, which seem intrinsic and effortless (all were sung from memory in this performance). Whilst some of the mysticism of their recordings is lost in a concert hall acoustic, their live performances still contain an enchanting vibrancy and mystery not often seen on the concert stage.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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