Three women’s voices and a trumpet in Trinity College Chapel - my mind had already decided what sound we were in for. But this was Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen - a very different kettle of Gravadlax.
Part of the heart-lifting Festival of the Voice series run by Cambridge Early Music, this was a banquet of Scandinavian fare featuring, like any good spread, the unexpected as well as the traditional. Trio Mediaeval - Sweden's Anna Maria Friman, and Norway's Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Berit Opheim Versto - was founded in 1997 and since then has toured the concert world riveting audiences with their chorister-clean clarity.
Arve Henriksen, also Norwegian, takes the trumpet into sound zones I, and possibly the trumpet, didn’t know it could reach. Had I not seen the trumpet, I would have taken his opening notes for an early woodwind instrument or recorder.
The first sung item, the 11th century Alma Redemptoris Mater, was abbeys, monks and Hildegard of Bingen, pure and reaching, mesmerising the audience into a stunned silence which spoke more than applause. The crystal opening of Salve Mater Misericordiae I took to be the trumpet, but was in fact a soprano note, a boat cutting smoothly through a fjord. Every time I thought I’d worked out who was soprano and who alto, each woman amazed me with her enormous vocal range.
As we progressed through the repertoire of 12th century Italian Laude, 13th century English and Norwegian and Swedish folk songs, the three women’s rapport became evident. They moved, breathed and sang as one, three seabirds drifting on wind currents, all holding the final note to the same nano-second without any visible signal to each other. When they sat to listen to Henriksen, their short cropped heads all tilted at the same angle, and their black boots all crossed right over left in unison, yet unplanned. Trinity was certainly an apt venue.
While the trio was spell-binding, for me Henriksen never got beyond the intriguing. His gold and silver trumpets, extraordinary range of sounds and tones, and soul-baring improvisations were a touch mood-music for me, and I kept expecting to see the trio roll out their yoga mats.
Henriksen, who sat throughout, experimented with everything from Muezzin-like wails to throaty didgeridoo impressions, and threw in a bit of keyboard, Gamelan and falsetto for good measure, not so much World as Whirled music. He constantly used his left hand to adjust the control panel of his synthesiser (if that’s what it was) to produce vibrations, echoes and beats, when I wished he would stop nursing the machine, stand up, come to the middle and play. The quality of the sound being made by the trio and himself did not need electronic support, and it was almost a relief when a hauntingly beautiful Credo sung in the second half was a cappella. The controlled diminuendo on the final Amen was quite remarkable.
One tiny shame was that sometimes one of the singers needed to use a score, and if only her two colleagues had also held them, their unity would have been preserved.
This was Mediaeval Baebes with high polish. They used chime bars, a violin and positioned themselves in different parts of the chapel, but again, I felt that what they do is so good they really don’t need extras. Their voices stirred ancient Norse depths, conjuring Viking longboats disappearing in the misty distance. They provided a feast, and if every dish did not delight, all certainly intrigued, and judging from the lengthy applause and the demand for an encore, the audience was happy to try everything.
Trio Mediaeval performed on Saturday 19th May at Trinity College Chapel