The Sound Cafe
Scandinavian Lodestar Trio To Release Striking Debut Album 'Bach To Folk'
By Jo Frost Photo Credit: ARC Music, Naxos Global Distribution.
The starting point for many creative partnerships often comes from a chance encounter that ignites a spark. Sometimes this spark might be bright but fleeting, like a shooting star. Other times the spark grows into something radiant and long lasting.
Lodestar Trio possess many traits that signify this is the beginning of a fresh, exciting and enduring collaboration. The three luminaries involved – Max Baillie, Olav Luksengård Mjelva and Erik Rydvall – are individually all highly sought-after musicians from seemingly different worlds but who share a common desire to explore and seek new challenges.
British-German violinist Max Baillie is a former graduate of the Yehudi Menuhin School and although steeped in the classical tradition, he’s gained a reputation for being an avid collaborator, working with a variety of musicians including Steve Reich, John Williams, Bobby McFerrin and Björk.
Olav Luksengård Mjelva plays the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and he’s a founding member of the Norwegian-Swedish band Sver, Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, and he also plays in an award-winning duo with the third member of Lodestar: Erik Rydvall. Erik plays the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle synonymous with Swedish folk music. His various collaborations have included playing with a Swiss flamenco dance group.
The genesis of Lodestar Trio dates back some years, when Olav and Erik were working on their third release while elsewhere Max was searching for a new creative collaboration. A friend sent Max a video of Olav and Erik playing together and he was immediately struck with sense of siblinghood for these “mystical magical Scandinavian string instruments.” His curiosity deepened when he saw another video of the pair playing Bach’s Inventions. A self-confessed Bach fanatic, he decided to send them an email to enquire if they might be up for collaborating. The response, he reports, was a Nordically concise “yes”, so some months later, Max flew to Røros in central Norway to meet Olav and Erik.
Following three intense days of jamming and improvising, the three hit it off and Lodestar Trio was born. But then the pandemic struck and everything was put on hold, until August 2021 when travel became possible again and the trio were finally able to record Bach to Folk in a church in Røros. The result is a stunning debut that showcases not just the exquisite musicianship of these three artists but also offers fresh interpretations of the baroque repertoire, in particular Bach. It’s an album that will appeal to fans of Bach, baroque, Nordic folk music and, also, simply to anyone who has an appreciation of beautifully-played string music.
“To our knowledge,” says Max, “these specific three instruments have not played this kind of music together before, and each has a distinct sound of its own that complement each other.”
The music showcased on the album is not as unconnected as it might first appear, as Max explains: “Bach was very much in touch with folk traditions. He was so rooted in local culture; he bridges the divine and the earthbound. It’s transportive but also super earth-bound music.”
Unlike Max who grew up playing Bach, Olav and Erik’s relationship with the composer is more recent. “Challenging yourself is a big part of it,” says Erik, although playing Bach on his standard nyckelharpa proved impossible. So, he commissioned a special custom-made nyckelharpa from Esbjörn Hogmark, one of the master makers of the instrument. “What we’re trying to do in this project is make baroque and folk music meet, drawing from the various different traditions,” explains Olav.
What enthrals Max about this particular collaboration with Erik and Olav is that they have “a really cool mix of paying tribute to an old tradition, keeping alive a culture of music-making that is centuries old, but doing so in a way that brings out new qualities.” So even on some of the most familiar pieces such as ‘Air from Orchestral Suite no 3 BWV 1068’ there’s a refreshing joyfulness to the music, enhanced by the occasional click of the nyckelharpa keys and the reedy sound of the Hardanger fiddle.
Over half of the tracks on the album are movements taken from Bach’s solo works for violin and cello, but the trio also revisit three more of Max’s favourite baroque pieces. François Couperin’s ‘Les Barricades Mystérieuses’ was originally written for harpsichord and it’s a Thomas Adès’ arrangement for bass clarinet, viola, cello and double bass that inspired Max to try it out with Lodestar Trio.
There’s also Jean-Baptiste Lully, master of French baroque and the “life-loving tune” ‘Loure from ‘Alceste’ Orchestral Suite’, from his opera Alceste. Finally, some early Italian baroque from Tarquinio Merula and a version of ‘Ciaccona’ that Max had previously played with the Gambian kora player Sura Susso. It’s a tune that skips along, with the silky tones of the violin combining with the drone-like sound of the Hardanger and the more robust gravelly resonance of the nyckelharpa.
In addition to the baroque tunes are several original compositions including ‘Hjaltaren’, written by Olav. This was also the first tune that Max heard Erik and Olav play and it’s a real highlight on the album. There’s also ‘Jubileumspolska’ written by Erik, and originally commissioned by the folkBALTICA festival in Flensburg. The newest composition is ‘Rolling to Røros’ composed by Max on his journey to Norway to record the album.
The trio’s deep sense of connection belies the fact that this is still a very new outfit, but the mutual respect for each other is abundantly clear. The fact that Max is embedded in the baroque repertoire means “there’s no danger of getting lost,” says Erik. “It’s like going into the wilderness with Survivor,” he laughs. “Max is so rooted to this music. He’s so full of knowledge but so open to play with it. For me that’s quite unique to meet a person like that.”
Max agrees: “it’s difficult to find people you really click with musically, so I think we really lucked out. As I get older, I’m trying to do less but more deeply and in a more committed way. I really appreciate this trio as it really excites me, gives me a lot of joy and I really believe in it.”
As their name suggests, Lodestar Trio hope to provide light and inspiration for others, yet ultimately to have fun while doing so. As Erik concludes “right now it is enough to just give this music wings.”