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PESSI, WALLUMRØD – IF GRIEF COULD WAIT / ECM 2226                         player

“If Grief Could Wait” is an intimate album of very special character, the outcome of a collaboration between harpist Giovanna Pessi and singer Susanna Wallumrød. Given impetus also by the nyckelharpa of Marco Ambrosini and Jane Achtman’s viola da gamba, the project has Pessi’s arrangements of Henry Purcell songs at its core. It begins with “The Plaint” (from The Fairy Queen of 1692) and continues with “If Grief Has Any Pow’r To Kill”, and “O Solitude” (from The Theatre of Musick), as well as “Music For a While” (from Oedipus) and “An Evening Hymn” (from Harmonia Sacra)

But Purcell’s music has never been heard quite like this. Threaded between his songs and instrumental pieces here are works of singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake, as well as songs by Susanna Wallumrød herself. “If Grief Could Wait” is neither a project that adheres rigorously to ideals of historical performance practice, nor one that strives self-consciously to “cross over”. Pessi and Wallumrød offer music that they love, and all of it is played with commitment by the participating musicians. Purcell and Cohen are respected on their own terms, and Susanna’s pure voice and Giovanna’s subtle and evocative arrangements bring continuity to the repertoire. And, as Pessi points out, Cohen and Drake songs from the last century are also, from a contemporary perspective, ‘old music’.

Recorded in three days in Lugano last November, this fresh-sounding album has some years of history behind it. Giovanna Pessi previously recorded for ECM with the Rolf Lislevand Ensemble (Lislevand’s “Diminuito”, recorded 2007/8, includes also Marco Ambrosini), and also with the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, the hard-to-categorize group led by a ‘jazz’ pianist but inspired by contemporary composition and folk music. Wallumrød Ensemble albums with Pessi include “The Zoo Is Far” and “Fabula Suite Lugano”, recorded respectively in 2006 and 2009. It was while rehearsing in Oslo with Christian that Pessi first met the pianist’s younger sister, Susanna Wallumrød, then just beginning to shape her own musical career.

Susanna subsequently invited Giovanna to play harp on one of her albums (“Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos”, issued by Rune Grammofon in 2007), and when producer Manfred Eicher invited Giovanna to come up with a proposal for an ECM recording of her own, the idea of working further with Susanna’s voice had become a priority. “I have played with so many ‘early music’ singers with perfect, trained classical voices and I knew that I didn’t want that kind of sound, not this time. So I asked her if she would like to try.” Susanna Wallumrød had already recorded Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” (“When I Am Laid In Earth”) from Dido and Aeneas on one of her own albums; the musical territory was not altogether unfamiliar, but finding the appropriate approach to it was the challenge.

Both singer and harpist recognised that the project needed time, if they were to grow together musically. Pessi: “We come from such different places – Susanna with her pop music background, me with my baroque background. I needed to get closer to her feeling for rhythmic playing and singing, and she needed to develop her sense of line and phrasing. We worked a long time on preparing the material. Every time I was in Oslo – which was often when I was playing a lot with Christian - we’d get together and play, and she visited me in Switzerland also.”

Susanna suggested attempting Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” early in the process, and Pessi countered by proposing one of her favourite Cohen songs, “You Know Who I Am”. Once those had found their place in the repertoire, the way was open to add “Which Will” by the late Nick Drake, as well as “The Forester” and “Hangout” from Susanna’s pen. After a year of duo rehearsals, Marco Ambrosini was added at Manfred Eicher’s suggestion and Giovanna drafted in Jane Achtman, Swiss based viola da gamba player. “They both brought a lot to the music, in the depth and the movement of the lines, and underlining the baroque side of it. Marco I knew well from the Lislevand group, and I’ve always enjoyed working with him. Jane had previously played almost exclusively in early music contexts, but was very open to the spirit of this work.”

Giovanna Pessi was born in Basel, Switzerland, and began playing the harp at age 7. At 13, she began to play on an instrument by Erard, built in 1800. The experience with this historical harp, its light touch, and unique sound, motivated her to focus her studies towards early music. In 1998, she won the Basler Hans Huber Stiftung prize and, in 2000, received the diploma for historical harp of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. As a soloist and accompanist Giovanna Pessi has performed with groups and conductors such as Ricercar Consort, Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, Ensemble Kapsberger, Concentus Musicus, Les Flamboyants, La Fenice, Konrad Junghänel, Philippe Pierlot, Rolf Lislevand, Harry Bicket, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Marc Minkowski.

Norwegian singer and songwriter Susanna Wallumrød started the duo Susanna and the Magical Orchestra with keyboardist Morten Qvenild in 2000, and has released five albums to date with the duo and also issued recordings as simply Susanna. Besides playing with Qvenild, Pål Hausken, and Helge Sten on a regular basis she has also collaborated with The White Birch, Jenny Hval, Bonnie 'Prince Billy, The Cairo Gang, Ensemble Neon and others.

A great contemporary exponent of the nyckelharpa, the Swedish keyed fiddle, Marco Ambrosini was born in Italy and studied violin and composition in the Pergolesi Musical Institute in Ancona and the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. He has played with the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana and numerous chamber orchestras, ensembles of early, baroque and contemporary music. In 1982 he co-founded the international ensemble Oni Wytars and since 1990 performs as soloist with the Clemencic Consort in Vienna. He debuted as a soloist and nyckelharpa player at La Scala in Milan. Ambrosini has appeared on more than 100 CD productions, spanning all options from early music to collaborations with jazz musicians.

Jane Achtman began playing medieval fiddle at age nine and picked up the viol shortly thereafter. After receiving her degree in early music at the Akademie für Alte Musik in Bremen, Germany (viola with Sarah Cunningham) and further studies with Mary Springfels in Chicago, she was awarded a DAAD stipend to continue her studies at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland. In 1997 she founded the ensemble Musicke&Mirth together with Irene Klein. Since its formation the ensemble has developed various programs in different constellations. It has been successful at competitions, winning prizes at the Dorian/EMA Recording Competition, the Premio Bonporti and the Van Wassenaer Concours. Two CDs have been published by Raumklang: Musicke&Mirth – Music for two Lyra Viols (2001) and Die Spinne im Netz (2004) Jane is a member of the ensembles The Harp Consort, Accentus and Unicorn. She has worked with Kees Boeke, Pedro Memelsdorff, René Jacobs and Michael Hofstetter and performed in opera productions and as a soloist with the L’Orchestre de Chambre Genéve.

© Studio Svengali, May 2024
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