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Frode Haltli
Border Woods

Hubro ( )
Review by Andrew Cronshaw

Frode Haltli is a brilliant Norwegian chromatic button accordionist with an illustrious track record, including Young Soloist of the Year 2001, a Spellemannprisen (Norwegian Grammy) in 2002, recording on ECM records, performing with Trondheim Soloists, member of the group Rusk and in duos and trios with Gjermund Larsen, Ragnhild Furebotten, Emilia Amper and Trygve Seim. Lately, and ongoing, he’s been doing concerts of his music with his large ensemble Avant Folk, whose first album came out in 2018 and has another scheduled for autumn this year.

Listen "Wind Through Aspen Leaves" (excerpt)

So you might expect this album to open with the familiar sound of accordion. Not so. “Wind Through Aspen Leaves” is surging washes of wind gongs from one or both of the two percussionists in this quartet, Håkon Stene and Eirik Raude, then, sneaking in late on, only the subtlest of stretched single, reedy accordion notes.

Then comes the 15-minute “Mostamägg Polska." Surely here (if one hadn’t heard him before and thought this was a straight accordion album) there’ll be bouncy jolly accordion?

Listen "Mostamägg Polska" (excerpts)

Again, not so; a deep plummy-chiming ostinato on concert marimba, joined by the nyckelharpa of great Swedish exponent Emilia Amper, playing the melody whose initial phrases repeat develop with each reiteration, then enters a long-note countermelody on Haltli’s delicately expressive accordion, which he uses dry-tuned – that is, not with the slightly detuned reed-pairs, known as ‘wet’ or ‘musette’ tuning, favoured by many accordionists that give that big squishy unsubtle sound and can give accordions a bad name.

The accordion and nyckelharpa dance together, before setting off on separate paths that move from the original” tune but don’t forget it, like two people aware of and taking in one another’s presence but moving apart to express themselves individually, sometimes one answering the other’s phrases, before coming back together in twisted polska lines, again with repeated short phrases, which they now play in tandem. Both stop, giving way to stillness and calm, as muted echoing marimba takes the stage. Long single accordion notes emerge and swell across the quietly throbbing marimba, before, just before the end, a phrase from the polska appears, repeats and fades.

“Wood And Stone” is a short interlude of just percussion, a high and bright interplay of – well, wood and stone, and metal. Then a gently surging accordion and nyckelharpa melody in the reflective, reminiscent “Taneli’s Lament (Sorrow Comes To All…)."

Listen "Valkola Schottis" (excerpt)

The 11-minute “Valkola Schottis” begins with glassy ringing notes of what sounds like bowed vibraphone. After two minutes the accordion enters with single melody notes blending with the putative vibraphone, gradually overlaying one another in an emerging floating melody, after a couple more minutes of which the left hand chords enter subversively, before Amper’s nyckelpharpa and the accordion burst together into the winding uptempo schottis tune. Flat-slapping drumming underlies an accordion and marimba section, building to a full quartet of interweaving lines, slowing and pausing to support an expressive, yearning nyckelharpa lead, moving from bowing to string-plucking of the schottis tune to end.

The brief booklet notes say, “Some track titles contain words from author Britt Karin Larsen’s Finnskogen book series 'Border Woods.' They do not refer to any specific border or woods – they could be anywhere and are everywhere.”

“Quietly The Language Dies” is a sparse meditative conversation between accordion and nyckelharpa, with a high drone note that blends and emerges, changing character gradually but always there.

The whole album might be described by some as having an ‘ambient’ feel, but there’s nothing aimlessly meandering here; I’ve described every track in more than usual detail, because every note has a point, presence and direction.

The thing is, this isn’t an accordion album – it’s a Frode Haltli album. He composed all the pieces, produced it, and plays on it but gives a lot to the other members of the quartet. It’s about as far from ‘hear my smart chops’ as it’s possible to get. And as someone once said, Beethoven didn’t play on his albums. - Andrew Cronshaw

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