After queuing for some time in the unseasonably cold evening air, we were let into St Francis Xavier’s cathedral, where our seats, unallocated, were narrow wooden pews from which our view of the performance area was partially obscured by a pillar. Par for the course for attending a concert in a cathedral, of course.
The three women in the group, Anna Friman, Linn Fuglseth, and Jorun Husan, entered with their improbable trumpter, Arve Henriksen. They presented a program of ancient folksongs from Norway, the home of the group, and Iceland, Orkney, and Sweden, which they sang with great purity of tone and impeccable intonation, although the sound was somewhat spoiled by being amplified, something usually not necessary in cathedral acoustics. Henriksen, playing a modern trumpet, achieved the near-impossible task of blending with the singers, displaying a remarkable range of soft sounds in both the highest and lowest registers of the trumpet.
The songs were arranged by the group, mainly Friman and Henriksen. They laudably eschewed the quasi-tonal clichés which so often accompany folksong arrangements, but after a few songs it became clear that these had been replaced by clichés of their own – fourths and major seconds, dissonance-free harmonies which very quickly became anodyne. The unvarying, though beautiful, sound of the three women contrasted so much with the highly inventive, improvisatory playing of the trumpeter that the latter sounded superimposed on the performance, incongruent despite the care Henriksen took to blend with the women. He also sang, sometimes in very high tenor (I would like to hear him sing the Roasted Swan from Carmina Burana), and once in a Sami-like deep-throated bass. But in the end my question, why was he part of this group in the first place? was left unanswered.
When we arrived at the interval I was frankly ready to leave, but this inclination was made socially unacceptable by Henriksen, who said to the audience, “Now we will all sing some interval music”. Not only could we not leave, but we couldn’t even get up from our narrow wooden pews. He persuaded the audience to sing a drone fifth, against which he showed off some more.
I should at this point say that my reservations about this performance were shared by many but by no means all of the audience, some of whom really enjoyed it. But to me it raised general questions about importing folksong into a classical music context. A conspicuous lack of earthiness in Trio Mediaeval’s performance made me ask, is it ever really satisfying? Can we import the grungy, naïve soul of folk music into the concert hall merely by importing its tunes? Don’t we sacrifice some of its essence, irrevocably changing its nature, by dressing it in clean clothes and parading it in drawing-rooms? I was reminded of Bernard Shaw’s remark: “[this folksong] deserved a better fate than being buried alive in a Brahms quintet”. Why don’t these wonderful singers sing Landini, Dunstable, and Dufay?
2019 Adelaide Festival
Venue: St Francis Xavier Cathedral | 39 Wakefield Street, Adelaide
Dates: 6 March 2019
Tickets: $79 - $47