If Arctic already sounds like an award winner, it’s no coincidence; the album includes compositions from Jacob Shea (Blue Planet) and Frode Fjellheim (Frozen). But the connecting tissue is the splendid vision of Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing, who has arranged the work of numerous composers, classical and contemporary, to tell a singular story.
Jacob Shea’s six-part “Arctic Suite” operates as both introduction and 20-minute overture, concentrating on the wonder of the region, from weather to wildlife to the play of light on ice and in the skies. Hemsing leans gracefully into the material, expressing a love for the region she first visited as a child from her home a thousand miles south. In “Frozen World,” the surges of brass and strings portray the majesty of the vast open spaces, while glockenspiel twinkles like shards of light. Her feeling of being “small” in this immense habitat is reflected in the video below, but these works are immense, expanding to fit their frames. “A Rush of Life” is particularly playful, as Hemsing uses passages of varying tempos to imitate “whirling swarms of fish.” The pace slows as “Sea Ice Melting” introduces the album’s crucial undercurrent: that the ecosystem, as large as it is, is endangered.
As Hemsing and the Arctic Philharmonic turn their attention to other composers, the transition is seamless; Ben Palmer’s arrangement of Henning Sommerro’s “Vårsøg” is lush and romantic, Frode Fjellheim’s “The Return of the Sun” joyful and bright. Fjellheim sings a song of the ancestral Sámi while Hemsing frolics across the sonic field. Hemsing packs the album with Nordic composers, digging as far back as Grieg while concentrating on modern arrangements, filled with a sense of the wild, unexplored north.
While it is always winter in the Arctic, the most wintry track is Selim Palmgren’s “Snowflakes,” which celebrates the approachable form of weather event, less a storm than a beautiful sight. But the inclusion of Grieg’s “Last Spring” and Ole Bull’s “La Mélancolie” – two of the closing three tracks – turn the thoughts toward melancholy. Winter meant one thing to these artists, and in the age of climate change, it means another to us. The Arctic was once considered to be permanently frozen. How many more songs will be written in the present tense, as we celebrate its importance as an ecosystem, and its wintry appeal? (Richard Allen)
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