Due to the religious furor that gripped Norway in the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the folk tunes that have been passed down from generation to generation are religious in content. Not many of the cattle-calls (lokk) have been preserved, much less in their original context, and the medieval ballads have survived mainly because of the stories they tell. The stev is probably the style most similar to modern American pop and rock music, with its rigid, rhyming poetry set to music.
For the past ten years, the Norwegian group Trio Mediaeval (Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Østrem Ossum) has been performing and recording traditional folk tunes, mainly the religious ones. For their fourth album, Folk Songs, the group has focused their attention on non-religious folk songs, pulling from all of the early folk traditions of Norway, in particular those from the Telemark and Vestfold counties in the southeast. In addition, this mainly a cappella trio have added some of the drumming styles that originated in the historical military branches, but were later incorporated into regular folk music at celebrations and events such as weddings. The percussionist is classical and jazz musician Birger Mistereggen, who is also one of the foremost specialists in Norwegian folk music percussion.
The liner notes include the words to the songs in both Norwegian and English. It is interesting to read the words to the songs, particularly because to my ears, the phrasing and pronunciation of the Norwegian doesn't match the letters on the page; however, I am perfectly happy listening to the album without knowing anything about the content of the songs. The music itself is expressive and distinctive enough to retain my interest in it, and after repeated listens, that interest has not waned, nor have I ceased discovering some new twist or aspect of what is being sung that I either had not noticed originally, or had simply forgotten only to be rediscovered anew.
The album was recorded in the St. Gerold monastery in Austria, and it is obvious from the way the sound of their voices resonates that it was done in a place like that where the acoustics were designed for natural amplification. The three vocalists display their talent song after song with clear, pure tones. As with most folk styles, the voices are without vibrato, which allows them to blend together even more tightly. Perhaps if I listened long enough I would learn to distinguish one vocalist from the other, but at this point I cannot, and that is as it should be.
Until I listened to this album, I had not actively sought out Norwegian music, folk or otherwise. However, periodically a musical phrase would jump out as vaguely familiar. Often I found myself thinking of the collection of Anonymous 4 albums on my CD shelves. Like the Anonymous 4, Trio Mediaeval are bringing the vocal songs of centuries past to modern listeners, and both are pulling from the European musical traditions, albeit Trio Mediaeval have a more focused collection of source material. I highly recommend that fans of the Anonymous 4 listen to Trio Mediaeval as well, if they are not doing so already.
As we in the northern hemisphere enter into the dark days of winter, it's the right time to put the haunting, yet beautiful music of Trio Medieaval's Folk Songs in our music players and let the sound waft over us until the spine-tingling sensations of the vibrations in our ears makes us shiver. Perhaps that might help to keep warm, if the warmth of joy in our hearts at hearing such beautiful music isn't enough.