Trio Mediaeval offers a collection of music from the medieval to the modern with the group’s sixth ECM New Series release, Aquilonis, titled after the North Wind. One can sense a reference in that title to the Nordic roots of the three Scandinavian singers, as well as to the bracing purity of their voices; moreover, the album’s repertoire travels from Iceland to Italy, from north to south like the Aquilonis wind. Trio Mediaeval re-imagines Icelandic chant and early Italian sacred songs, along with performing custom arrangements of timeless Norwegian folk melodies – with the vocalists often accompanying themselves with textural instrumentation. The group also sings 15th-century English carols, as well as contemporary works written by the Swede Anders Jormin, American William Brooks and Englishman Andrew Smith. The trio’s own composing can be heard in a sequence of atmospheric interludes. In his liner notes to Aquilonis, John Potter aptly describes the group’s ability to “create a synthesis of sound and atmosphere… history and geography blending seamlessly.”
With Potter as recording supervisor, Trio Mediaeval convened for Aquilonis in the label’s favored venue for vocal repertoire, the Alpine monastery of St. Gerold in Austria. Alongside founding trio members Anna Maria Friman and Linn Andrea Fuglseth was Berit Opheim; although she has sung with the group regularly since 2010, Opheim joined Trio Mediaeval full-time at the start of 2014, so this is her first recording with the group.
Trio Mediaeval’s ECM discography is marked by a distinctive blend of the ancient and the modern. In praising the “mellifluous” quality of the group’s “pure, cool sound,” the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph went on to note that this “makes everything they sing – from the earliest polyphony to newly composed pieces that, to some extent, inhabit the same sound-world – wonderfully rewarding.” Trio Mediaeval’s aim is “making medieval music come alive in the present, alongside modern compositions and our own arrangements,” Friman explains. “This is very exciting for us. The contemporary music has dissonant chords and independent lines that do not appear to the same extent in the medieval music we perform, but we feel that it all melts together in the Trio Mediaeval sound world. For this recording, we have for the first time arranged medieval monophony to create something new. Previously, we had only arranged folk songs, but we find that ‘gentle’ arrangements of chant work very well, merging with the folk music and the rest of the repertoire.”
For the first time on record, the singers of Trio Mediaeval accompany themselves instrumentally on some pieces, with traditional Norwegian hardanger fiddle, portable organ and melody chimes. Also for the first time on a Trio Mediaeval album, there are interludes composed by the singers: Morgonljos, Klokkeljom and I hamrinum, each with atmospheric accompaniment on the portable organ by Fuglseth or the hardanger fiddle by Friman. The moving arrangement of the Norwegian folk tune Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro (Eternal Rest Is the Reward) also features Friman on hardanger fiddle.
Regarding the arrangements of chant associated with St. Thorlak, the patron saint of Iceland, Friman explains: “The antiphons and psalms in the Office of St. Thorlak were originally monophonic, but we immediately felt inspired to color the beautiful melodies and arrange them both vocally and instrumentally. We first sang it all through in unison, and then we improvised parts that gradually evolved into arrangements, with the instruments adding a new texture to the material.”
Aquilonis includes the bright 15th-century English carol Alleluia: A Newë Work – the very first piece the group sang as a trio, in 1997, and now finally recorded. The album also features Ama, written especially for the current incarnation of the trio by Anders Jormin, a Swedish bassist-composer born in 1957 and known to ECM listeners for his work in jazz. He based his beautifully piquant piece on a sage 2,000-year-old poem by Virgil: “If you wish for love, then love / Life is short-lived for us all / Love overcomes all things / Let us be conquered by love.”
The composers who write for Trio Mediaeval are inspired by the sound the group makes when singing medieval music, even if the contemporary works generally make more use of the performers’ vocal ranges. Along with the new Jormin piece, the album includes several contemporary compositions that have been in the Trio Mediaeval concert repertoire for some years, including three works by Andrew Smith (b. 1970) and one by William Brooks (b. 1943).
Smith resides in Oslo, and Friman and Fuglseth met him while singing in choirs there. He composed the first of many pieces for Trio Mediaeval in 2000. As John Potter points out in his notes for Aquilonis, Smith’s works feature echoes of music from Grieg to James MacMillan, but his music is most aesthetically rooted in the medieval world of chant and modality that originally inspired the trio. Friman met Brooks at the University of York while working there. He composed Six Medieval Lyrics for the group, with the last of the set closing Aquilonis. Fuglseth says of this hovering, subtly emotive piece: “We thought that it made for a natural, beautiful ending: Vale, dulcis amice, or Farewell, sweet friend.”