Dimma is a label that has been releasing a host of terrific Nordic folk recordings. This review covers three recent releases: all are, essentially, very different duos (the one exception being some fleshing-out of the Storis Limpan band) that highlight diverse approaches to fiddle playing.
Helsinge Storpolska appears to be the name with which the musicians Ulf Nilsson and Örjan Hans-Ers have christened themselves. Both Nilsson and Hans-Ers play fiddle, often in tandem. Hans-Ers hails from the North Sea area, while Nilsson comes from Föränge, Järvsö parish, in Hälsingland province. Hälsingland is home to a long tradition of solo Swedish fiddling, and both Han-Ers and Nilsson began their musical studies in the early 1970s. This was the start of a long friendship – both men have released albums dating back to the 1990s, but Helsinge Storpolska may well be their first release focusing on their tight-knit playing.
Hans-Ers and Nilsson’s CD is loaded with polskas and waltzes, with many of the tracks performed in homage to other fiddlers. Unfortunately, the liner notes are not accompanied by an English translation. Both the CD and the Helsinge Storpolska website picture Hans-Ers and Nilsson either striding through their local wilderness, or playing across from each other in a warm cabin with a view looking out across the scenery.
Hence, I could not escape the impression that the program on offer from Hans-Ers and Nilsson was deeply rooted in traditional rusticity. For the listener, I found the album to be an effective experience under headphones (less so on the stereo or the car, where my wife was likely to throw something at me after one too many polskas) – but that hardly seems the ideal purpose of Helsinge Storpolska’s approach to fiddle playing. At times, the duo remind one of a classical consort, but overall Hans-Ers and Nilsson’s music is likely more attuned for traditional Swedish dancers.
Hans-Ers and Nilsson glide strongly through their set of tunes, dipping and swaying around the melodies. Perhaps because of the duo format, I felt that there was a glistening linearity to the music that sometimes made it difficult for me to feel much variation. The pace of the music would vary from the brisk polskas (“Polska efter Carl Sved” has a lovely classical feel), to the more stately “Polska efter Myr-Hans Nilsson.” For devotees of Swedish fiddling, this is sure to be a rewarding release of virtuosic synergy, but I rather wished to see Hans-Ers and Nilsson live so as to experience the intensity of their playing (as documented in the video).
Magnus “Storis” Holmström and Tomas “Limpan” Lindberg are the core of the Storis Limpan Band. Holmström is from Bullmark, in Västerbotten, up north in Sweden; while Lindberg comes from Heby, in Uppsala County. Holmström is a three-time world champion on the nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish keyed fiddle with a gorgeous, mellow tone. Holmström studied at the Eric Sahlstrom Institute in 2000, but moved on to the Royal College of Music in 2003 for five additional years. In addition to his band activities, Magnus Holmström also helps run the Dimma label. Tomas Lindberg may be familiar to readers and listeners from the superb Swedish band Draupner (not surprisingly, a Hälsingland export), which has been together since 1994. Lindberg has a strong presence in Draupner as an anchoring guitar presence, pushing the music forward; and in the Storis Limpan Band, Lindberg proves the perfect foil to Holmström’s nyckelharpa.
Patina is a beautiful, welcoming listen right from the beginning notes of lead-off track “Canada.” While not a trio, the Storis Limpan duo invoke a very Väsen-like atmosphere of dynamic interplay, coupled with memorable melodies. With about a minute left in the tune, I love how Lindberg drops back on “Canada” to let Holmström’s nyckelharpa reiterate the melody line. “Skiira” features the kind of skirling magic that I associate with the nyckelharpa’s sound. And the loveliness keeps emerging: the gentle whorls of “Dutten,” undergirded by Lindberg’s guitar, is bittersweet to the ears. While Patina features a few polskas, there is a continuous variation in sound and texture that provides for interesting listening. “Adurs-Valsen Efter Gås-Anders” incorporates additional viols that add meat to a sweeping waltz. On “Mörkret (Dark),” the tone is indeed staid, and enhanced by the addition of a marching drum. Drumming also appears on the cheerful “Pastichen,” hurtling the tune along with some additional light cymbal flourishes. But overall, I find myself coming back to “Babba-Lisa” and its contrast of light and shade, softness coupled with bursts of ecstatic riffing by both Holmström and Lindberg.
Our third listening experience, Ånon Egeland and Mikael Marin’s Sorpesoll, is yet another very different album. Both Egeland and Marin are legendary players – Egeland is from Norway and a renowned Hardanger fiddle player, while Marin’s work includes the group Väsen. Sorpesoll is a stunning release, full of dark drones and raw emotion. Sonically, the album stands apart due to Egeland’s Hardanger fiddle playing, and Marin’s semi-acoustic viola, both of which were fitted with strings that the musicians tuned an octave lower than usual. The CD features primarily tunes from Egeland’s Norwegian repertoire, and many of the tunes on this instrumental album have lyrics: the low-tuning of the instruments stands-in for the human voice (much as the deep sound of the viola da gamba is said to have a human timbre). In fact, ‘sorpesoll’ refers to the low-tuned fiddles of southern Norway, as well as the dregs of mash left after the distillation of moonshine.
Sorpesoll is not a long album. At a mere twenty-eight minutes, fourteen tunes are covered. Egeland often soars in his playing, and Marin dredges the bottom, sometimes sounding like a walking bass, sometimes droning. The tunes themselves reek of mysteries: of a death prior to Christmas (“Med sorg og salte tarer – With grief and salty tears”), and of dead fiddlers (or perhaps dead horses and people falling through the ice at a wedding procession: who can say?), as on the closing “Gratarslaget (The weeping tune).” The atmosphere conjured by Egeland and Marin is dark, unique, and unforgettable, and Sorpesoll won them the 2017 Norwegian Folkelarm Prize for Traditional Ensemble. The album itself seems to capture the moonshine of the Nordic night.
This brace of albums provides for new perspectives into Nordic fiddle playing, where the hands of musicians with decades of experience are carving out new exploratory paths and even radical soundscapes inspired by traditional music. Each album sounds different from one another, laying waste to any preconceptions about Nordic fiddling. – Lee Blackstone