Ensemble Polaris - Uncharted Waters
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Ensemble Polaris
Uncharted Waters
Pipistrelle Music (www.alisonmelville.com/pipistrelle.htm)

I enjoy folk music that leans toward classical music, and vice versa. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to review some strong recordings in this category from the likes of Annbjørg Lien’s string quartet, Fiolministeriet, and Zenobia. Ensemble Polaris is a welcome addition to this cadre of genre-blending musicians.

This Canadian ensemble draws from the folk music of Orkney, Russia, France, Sweden, and beyond. The arrangements constructed from this mostly-original material have a deeply classical feel, along the lines of the music from folk-inspired composers like Grieg, Bartók, and Dvořák. This leaning toward the classical is underscored by noting the ensemble’s Pipistrelle label is distributed by Naxos, one of the great classical music labels.

Ensemble Polaris uses an exotic mix of instruments including Swedish bagpipes, seljefløyte, jew’s harp, vielle à roue, and bass clarinet. These appear in interesting combinations, and it’s rare that the entire ensemble plays on any given track. A song may be performed simply with voice and guitar. Others might blend recorder, violin, bouzouki, and Celtic harp. Sometimes the lineup and timbre changes within the same song. As the album’s title, Uncharted Waters, suggests, there are combinations here that many of us have not encountered nor even considered.

The dance tunes are the highlights here. “Dry Toes Waltz” comes from central France, and the rhythmic tambourine and melodic hurdy gurdy make me think of Roma campfire. Where “Dry Toes” is completely danceable, “I Kopanitsa,” based on a Balkan dance, is off-balance in amazingly fun ways. My feet can’t quite find the steps, and yet my heart urges me to dance anyway. And the “Vals etter Vidar Lande” is a hardanger fiddle tune without a fiddle. Yet the munnharpe, accordion, and cello underneath wordless vocals somehow conjure up the spirit of the hardingfele in ways my ears intuit but my mind can’t quite grasp.

Even amidst all the changes in texture on this recording, the CD as a whole holds together extraordinarily well, with the track sequencing adding to the overall artistic vision.

Ensemble Polaris does indeed take the listener to uncharted waters. Yet while the geography may be unknown, a sure footing is still provided, allowing listeners to dance along with the uncertainty. This offering is a welcome blend of familiar-sounding music from northern European traditions combined with the classical composer’s quest to craft new sounds. I’m very happy to have been invited on the voyage. - Greg Harness

Listen to some performances by the ensemble on their web site:
www.ensemblepolaris.com

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