In addition to being a national treasure for the Norwegian people, Ole Bull has become part cult hero and part legend outside of his homeland. The violinist and composer’s admirers include Edvard Grieg, Franz Liszt and Mark Twain. He saw fit to do a solo performance on top of a Giza pyramid and there’s even an unsubstantiated claim that Henrik Ibsen based the character of Peer Gynt upon him.
Toward the end of his life, Bull had his eye on the island of Lysøen as a possible home base for his retirement. At the age of 62 he purchased the island and proceeded to gush over its scenic riches in letters to his wife. Bull’s granddaughter donated his house to the Norwegian Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments in 1974, securing the land’s future as a perfectly preserved capsule of the past. Ole Bull had his own music room within the house and many public performances have occurred since the house’s donation.
Strangely, Lysøen: Hommage a Ole Bull is the first time any music has been recorded from this room. Violinist Nils Økland and keyboardist Signbjørn Apeland, though not interested in strict note-by-note interpretations of Ole Bull’s music, still count as extraordinary candidates for the job. And if you are that much of an Ole Bull purist to think that lovely homages should not embody some give and take, then you really need to give Lysøen: Hommage a Ole Bull a serious listen.
Like many ECM releases, this one practically thrives on atmospherics, which is not to say the material needs it in order to succeed. Many of these selections could be the perfect non-tongue-in-cheek backdrop for a brooding Bergman film or some such cinematic achievement from that era. This is an occasion where the minimal instrumentation works greatly to the material’s advantage, bringing ornamental nooks and crannies to the surface. It also speaks volumes to Økland and Apeland’s musical capabilities in the duet department. Despite the healthy amount of rubato, the two musicians mesh so well that its unsurprising nature can be a small surprise in itself.
Signbjørn Apeland sticks mostly to piano through the album and Nils Økland often stays the course with long bowed notes. One of a few exceptions to this is “Belg og slag”. More of an exotic ether than it is a strong melodic statement, it sounds like something Brian Eno would concoct for organ and violin. Apeland does nothing more than some subtle chord shifting and Økland’s sharp staccatos are not aggressively vying for attention either. Yet it makes an impression unlike any other song on the album. Pointing this out may threaten to divert your attention from other strong organ numbers like the hymn-like “Sylkje-Per” (a piano solo reprise appears towards the end of the CD) and Økland’s soft hyperventilating solos like “Solstraum”. But rest assured, these selections stand tall on their own. The subtle influence of folk idioms that inspired Ole Bull’s work becomes even more subtle in the hands of Økland and Apeland. But as they explain it, “like Bull, we are influenced by our contemporary music”.
That seems only fair. It would be one thing if Lysøoen: Hommage a Ole Bull was boring or annoyingly different, but it’s neither. It’s a fine wine, a delicacy that can only improve with each listen.