The public appetite for all things Scandinavian is showing no sign of abating. The vast and varied worlds of television, fashion, literature, cookery and interior design have all been caught up in the Nordic fad for a while now, and popular music too has not been immune. Tove Lo, MØ, Todd Terje, Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas have all become mainstream acts. But all of these popular phenomena have one thing in common: they have started to feel inauthentic. In essence, ‘Scandi chic’ has become a product, something packaged up for the sensual gratification of the average consumer, pandering if not to the lowest common denominator then to something pretty close.
It is heartening, then, to know that Scandinavia’s culture, or at least its musical culture, is alive and well beneath the flat-packed summer dance hits and icy pop queens. Traditional music is holding its own, and two of its finest exponents are Swedish keyed fiddle player Erik Rydvall and Norwegian fiddler Olav Luksengård Mjelva. Vårdroppar is their second album as a duo and, like the first, was recorded in a traditional Norwegian stave church in Hallingdal, halfway between Bergen and Oslo. Its fifteen tunes, mostly traditional, reek of authenticity, but this is more than an exercise in the preservation of musical heritage. From the first notes of Akademipolska there is a liveliness, a searching quality, that befits two musicians completely in tune with each other, their surroundings and their combined musical histories. Tracks like Storebraten are brisk and airy, allowing the very different characters of the instruments – the familiar-sounding fiddle and its keyed counterpart’s wheezier, almost hurdy-gurdy-like tones – to show through.
Polska Efter Dahlfors begins with slow, atmospheric plucking, before high, liquid notes take over, emphasising the dramatic quality that instrumental northern European folk music can possess. Similarly, Hjaltaren begins hauntingly before a gush of melodies stack up one after another, like a nightingale’s song, and the piece concludes with an urgent refrain. Morfars Schottis edges close to the sentimentality associated with Celtic fiddle music, but steers clear of mawkishness thanks to the virtuosity of its performers, while the more sombre Nödåret avoids similar pitfalls in a very different way, allowing the tune to unfold slowly and organically.
The title track is jauntier – another birdlike melody that veers towards classical violin music – but perhaps the most impressive aspect of the album is the exploratory feel of Mjelva and Rydvall’s playing, on Langåkern and Sølve-Knut for example. It has an almost jazzy quality to it, seemingly at odds with the traditional nature of the material. It is this quality that makes Vårdroppar something special, something transcends musical fashion. The tunes here are unlikely to be used in an episode of Wallander or an advert for Volvo, but they are all the more valuable because of that. They will still be potent when all the products are forgotten and the fads are a footnote in cultural history.
Vårdroppar is Out Now via Helio / Grappa