Frode Haltli: Vagabonde Blu

Who needs an orchestra when you've got Frode Haltli? Accordion players all over the world owe the Norwegian musician a debt of gratitude for presenting it as a legitimate concert hall instrument that's leagues removed from the beer hall. If anything, it's strange that the accordion hasn't become a more common fixture within classical music circles, given the vast range of sounds and timbres it's able to produce.

Haltli, who studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music and at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, brings technical proficiency and an extensive familiarity with contemporary music to his creative endeavours, which have included performances with string quartets (the Arditti among them), symphony orchestras, and folk- and jazz-oriented outfits. Vagabonde Blu is his fourth solo album, but in a sense it's his first, given that the others featured him accompanied by others. On the ECM set Passing Images, for example, Haltli was joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen, violist Garth Knox, and vocalist Maja Ratkje, whereas the duo album Yeraz paired him with saxophonist Trygve Seim.

The latest release features works by Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947), Arne Nordheim (1931-2010), and Aldo Clementi (1925-2011) performed live in September 2009 at Tomba Emmanuelle, an Oslo setting that dramatically enhances the recording's impact due to its remarkable acoustics; Haltli himself states, “Here the room is such an active partner that it changes my music and my playing radically.”

His ten-minute rendering of Sciarrino's title composition opens with shimmering chords that at first call to mind a typical Piazzolla milonga before the material establishes its own self-contained soundworld, one pregnant with mystery and allusion. With ample spaces separating the notes, the influence of the recording space quickly becomes evident in the echo and reverberations that follow the melodic glissandi and percussive effects produced by the accordion. This first piece in particular captures the way Haltli interacts with the room and exploits its acoustic potential to haunting effect. Up next is Nordheim's 1985 “Flashing,” a piece long familiar to Haltli as it's one he's played since he was a teenager. Of the album's three settings, it's the one closest in style to a contemporary electronic composition and in this context assumes the character of a dramatic, at times minimalistic tone poem marked by widely contrasting pitches, arresting chord combinations, abrupt punctuations, and aggressive flourishes.

But it's the final work, Clementi's 1998 work “Ein kleines…,” that is Vagabonde Blu's most affecting. Designed to be played like a lullaby, the hymn-like meditation sees Haltli playing two-voiced variations of a modal theme over and over, with gradual reductions in dynamics and tempo along the way, for eighteen wholly entrancing minutes. Though comparatively quiet and restrained, the material, which sounds as much like church organ playing as it does accordion, makes the most powerful argument of all in favour of the instrument in terms of its emotional expressiveness and sonorous range.

January 2015