Being familiar with Sarah-Jane Summers‘ exceptional work as part of the fiddle quartet Rant, I was looking forward to hearing the music she records with her husband, Finnish virtuoso guitarist Juhani Silvola. The Norway-based Scottish/Finnish duo’s first album was released in 2013 and immediately received glowing reviews. Their second album together is released this month and glories in the name Widdershins, an excellent word of Scots origin meaning anti-clockwise or to go against the norm. If there is such a thing as a norm in traditional music, then in Widdershins, Sarah-Jane and Juhani certainly do go well beyond that; with a joyful, exciting album that combines Sarah-Jane’s exceptional talent as a fiddle player with Juhani’s hypnotic guitar arrangements; takes Highland fiddle traditions on a fascinating Nordic journey; and marries the Scottish traditions with those of Scandinavia.
It’s the Scandinavian sound that greets the listener with Juhani’s opening composition, Sydänyö. A hushed, gently picked guitar and a mournful violin in an unmistakably Nordic sound with a strong emotional impact, that also hints at the medieval. Before too long the depth of expression in Sarah’s fiddle playing becomes apparent and she moves from an impossibly high keening cry to multi-tonal discord.
There’s a timelessness about the tone of Sarah-Jane’s fiddle and it’s worth repeating a nugget of information from the sleeve notes. Sarah-Jane plays a Matthew Hardie violin, dated 1812. These instruments are much sought-after for their superior tone. Hardie has been described as the ‘Scottish Stradivari’, creating instruments that look as beautiful as they sound. Unfortunately less expensive imports ruined his trade and Hardie died in the poor house. He had an extensive family, though, and his skills fostered what was to become a dynasty of violin makers.
Sydänyö makes you sit up and take notice – and your attention is soon rewarded with the title track, Widdershins. Sarah-Jane’s fiddle takes the initial lead as its archaic tones lead a lively dance that becomes a wild, untamed maelstrom. The dance regains control but is still unable to suppress the occasional rebellious flourish from both guitar and fiddle. It’s these flashes of inspired insurrection that help make Widdershins such a compelling album.
Those opening tracks together illustrate not only the mix of Highland and Nordic sounds on Widdershins but also the seemingly telepathic interplay that’s an essential element of Juhani and Sarah-Jane’s music. That empathy is exploited most successfully on the album by recording the music live, without edits, and with both musicians in the same room.
Sarah-Jane’s Vaajakosken Maija begins in a meditative mood that seems to draw strength from that close association and leads to a beautiful Highland air that holds a surprise or two in terms of pace and tone. The precise, measured, exquisite guitar from Juhani comes, by this time, as no surprise at all. Later in the album, Juhani presents a solo guitar piece, Burning Sands, that builds from the rich depths of a slowly flowing river to a tumble of white water. In his Silver Spring Reel, however, the pace is impressive right from the start, as an utterly charming pizzicato fiddle joins a whirlwind of guitar.
When the melody requires it, though, this duo are masters at tempering their natural enthusiasm and providing more sombre, reflective music. For A’Cheapach na Fásach (Keppoch Desolate), the fiddle is ghostly, midnight black, and guitar a rustle of dry leaves. I would never have thought an instrumental murder ballad was possible until now, but all the fearful mystery of the tradition is there in just two instruments. The Keppoch murders of 1663 were documented by the bard of Keppoch, Iain Lom MacDonald, whose own life story is no less fascinating than this bloody dispute for control of a Highland clan. Iain Lom campaigned tirelessly for the murderers to be brought to justice and wrote Murtadh na Ceapaich (The Keppoch Murder) to commemorate the events…
It was on Saturday, not long hence,
That the tragedy despoiled us,
As I lamented the white bodies
Losing their blood about their cloaks;
My hands were drenched crimson
After cleaning your wounds,
Putting you into a coffin
Is the worst task I have known.
(Extract from Murtadh na Ceapaich)
The soothing melody that underpins the tale is from the Simon Fraser collection. A soft mountain breeze grows from the initial plaintive and bittersweet chords, before the ethereal wind returns and guitar sighs a lament for the departed melody.
Despite the gloom of the Keppoch murders, Sarah-Jane and Juhani never stray far from the dance floor, and the brace of reels and a jig, learned from pipe tunes, that comprise Bellag The Drover are no exception. There are shades of square dance among the unmistakable Highland voices, driven by guitar and a growing intensity that would be welcome on any dance floor, as would another delightful set of three – Sister Dona Kelly. Lightning speed isn’t always required to express joy, though, and Sarah-Jane’s Målselv Reel is a bright, merry and heart-warming reel that skips along with gently increasing vigour before what sounds like the happiest of Highland reels, Donald Morrison.
To close the album, Spike on a Bike presents a driving, vigorous jig of dizzying complexity, extended to include Juhani’s mix of intricate picks and thundering rhythms before a final wayward flourish from Sarah-Jane to finish.
In Widdershins, Highland airs, jigs, and reels are treated to a Nordic twist and the rebellious tendencies of both players are given free rein to delightful effect. Juhani’s guitar turns on a sixpence between driving rhythms, breath-taking picked complexity and soothing atmospheres, while Sarah-Jane’s fiddle could take you, at any moment, across the dance floor or across the mountain tops – you never quite know until you’re there.
Widdershins is an astounding album that deserves wide exposure, and a work for which Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola should be resoundingly praised. Rarely is music such an overwhelming joy.
Widdershins is released 21 October 2016 via Dell Daisy Records
Pre-Order Widdershins here: www.sarah-janesummers.com/shop
Also available via Amazon