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A Mellow Ode To Ole Bull

Norwegian composer and violin virtuoso Ole Bull.
Norwegian composer and violin virtuoso Ole Bull.

(Classical Detours meanders through stylistic byways, exploring new recordings from the fringes of classical music.)

Norway's natural wonders, depicted in this album photo, were inspiration for the 19th-century violinist and composer Ole Bull. <em></em>
Jim Bengston / ECM Records
ECM Records
Norway's natural wonders, depicted in this album photo, were inspiration for the 19th-century violinist and composer Ole Bull.

Back in the 19th century, violinist and composer Ole Bull was a pretty big deal, especially in his native Norway. This new recording, Lysøen - Hommage à Ole Bull by violinist Nils Økland and keyboardist Sigbjørn Apeland, might help restore Bull's reputation. Then again, the album could slip by unnoticed because it's so quietly meditative — but that happens to be its best quality.

While Hommage to Ole Bull includes only three tunes by the man himself, the record succeeds in conjuring the mellow side of Bull's ebullient spirit. Versions of his favorite folk tunes alternate with new pieces by Økland and Apeland, who play on Bull's own Guarneri del Gesu violin, his harmonium and a family piano. The Bull-ish vibe even extends to the recording venue. The musicians were the first to record in Bull's own villa, a quirky mansion of onion domes, columns like Twizzlers and a grand ballroom — built on Lysøen, an island off Norway's west coast he purchased in 1872.

Bull was sort of a Norwegian Ry Cooder, a virtuoso musician who jammed with the best players (Bull counted Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann among his accompanists) but ultimately found inspiration in his own country's roots music. In Bull's case, it was the rustic dances and songs often played on the unofficial folk instrument of Norway — the Hardanger fiddle.

The introspective Grålysning (Daybreak), one of Økland and Apeland's compositions, is characteristic of the entire album. It floats in like fog over some lonesome fjord, assisted by the Hardanger's droning overtones and pearly droplets from the piano.

Økland's Hardanger also figures prominently in the gorgeous folk tune "Sylkje-Per" and in a particularly wistful rendition of "Solveig's Song" from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt. "Ole Bull became my savior," Grieg once said. "He showed me the beauty and originality in Norwegian folk music."

Bull was a charismatic virtuoso and an ingenious improviser. At a concert in Rome's Colosseum, the story goes, he improvised until dawn. That spirit lives on in many songs on this album — in the pensive, free-styled treatment of Bull's own "La Melancolie," and in the contemporary, minimalist sounds of Økland and Apeland's "Belg og slag" and especially "Solastraum," which could almost pass for outtakes from John Adams' Shaker Loops.

Hommage to Ole Bull is perfect late night or rainy day music — a slow-moving, intriguing glimpse of a musician whose fame and imagination shouldn't be forgotten.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.