Ensemble Polaris,
Midnight Sun
(Dorian, 2000)

Fond as I am of Celtic music, I don't consider it to be the standard music of fairyland as it's so often used. When I want to be carried away from my regular life into strange worlds, I put on an album of Nordic music, the older the better. With the summer months here, there's no better time to flee to someplace cooler. Ensemble Polaris presents an hour's passport to the lands of the Midnight Sun.

Many will be surprised at Polaris's wide definition of the Nordic tradition. Besides the expected contributions from Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway, there are tunes from Estonia, Scotland and even Canada. The tunes are just as varied, from the somber Swedish "Bride's March" to merry Norwegian/Canadian "On The Farm."

While cool and sometimes austere in their presentation, Polaris never sounds cold. The songs they choose to sing are often based around the simplest, most direct feelings. "Poor Sickle" is a fast, irate work song, delivered by Tiina Orpana with increasing impatience. Orpana shows off the fast patter of the Estonian language, but this song still feels made for a man's voice. Orpana's voice works much better with the sweetheart's dream of "O Siri, My Siri" or the longing "Why Did you Not Come To Me." Orpana's voice is made more plaintive by Alison Melville and Colin Savage's bass recorder, which provide a long, lonely counterpoint to the high clarity of her voice. The Swedish "Bride's March" plays like the sad farewell it is, with none of the joy expected from a modern wedding. "We Two Sisters" follows a wedding processional as it takes sisters apart from each other, with a little more hope but equal melancholy.

Three Swedish "Polskas," named for the musicians who inspired them, each call up their own moment of passion. "Polska efter Karl Lindblad" is a dour, marching procession, "Polska efter Nergards Lasse" is a bright riding gallop; despite their very noticeable differences, there are linking similarities in the feel and form of these tunes. The merry "Circle Dance/Russian Dance" is an unexpected gift from Sweden, sillier and more lighthearted than the other Swedish selections. Tiina Orpana winds the end of a normal day with "Rock The Swing," an almost mournful Estonian lullaby.

If the themes of Midnight Sun are universal, its points of origin are sometimes surprising. Scotland adds the unexpected sweetness of "The Lass off Humberside" carried on the light notes of the recorders. Scotland seems a bit out of place on an ablum of Nordic music, but both "The Lass of Humberside" and the deep, rolling "Skipper o' Dundee" blend well with the rest of the album. More surprising an inclusion is the music of Canada. It's a welcome inclusion, with the more popular "Greenwin Air" and the delightful "On the Farm." Largely a Norwegian tune, Sara Granskou translates and adds to it to it to honor some Canadian locals. Ben Grossman's percussion shows off well here, forming a duet with Granskou as the song goes on.

There are also songs of the wyrd here, especially from Iceland. "The Raven's Song" opens with a merry starting tone, giving no suggestion that this is a song of bodies in the forest and carrion feast. From the initial merry notes of the tune, an increasingly ominous guitar gives the scene the necessary weight and the strings add an eerie wail. "Oh Mother of Mine" is reinterpreted from the song of a dead child to the mother who abandoned them, and it loses none of its longing and eerie grief by losing its words. It's a jolt to go from "Oh Mother" to "Give Your Children Some Bread," a celebratory song of holidays and defeated trolls. Bouncy with the jew's harp and sparkling from the lute, "Bread" is one of the most memorable and unrepeatable tunes on the album. Estonia, which mostly contributes more everyday songs like "Poor Sickle," joins the mystical trend with "Great Oak." Ensemble Polaris's representation of the growing oak, as each instrument adds a new branch to the tune, is a well done elaboration on this usually simple song.

Ensemble Polaris goes back to the more usually Nordic realms of Sweden for the last two pieces, the whispering, crackling "Just Like The Stars Up in the Skies" and the rhythmic, earthy "In Our Meadow." It's a fitting ending for an album that reaches from exuberance to horror, and from despair to enchanted life. Midnight Sun shines on all the faces of traditional Nordic music and offers a gorgeous view.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 28 June 2003