Date: April 26, 2018
Venue: The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Review by Fiona Mactaggart
Before the Swedish string trio Vasen have even strolled on stage in this their first visit to The Queen’s Hall in 15 years, the band’s name intrigues and perhaps gives advance notice of the complexity of the sound. Swedish word ‘Vasen’ translates as essence, a living or spirit being, or a potentially unpleasant noise. This last definition points to their wry, gently self-deprecating humour, which together with exceptional musicianship, the ancient sound of the nyckelharpa and extensive touring over the last 29 years, has brought the trio a world-wide fan base – they even have a street named after them in Bloomington, Indiana! They are worthy fillers of this prime slot on the first night of the 2018 Edinburgh ‘Tradfest’.
Consisting of Mikael Marin (composer, producer and arranger, on 5-string viola), Olov Johansson (first ever World Champion of nyckelharpa in 1990, composer and sometime collaborator with renowned Scottish harper Catriona McKay) and Roger Tallroth (12-string guitarist, composer and inventor of Tallroth-tuning), the trio tonight present two long and dense sets, punctuated by slightly weary-sounding chat, to the quietly appreciative audience. Interestingly most tunes were composed as gifts – to each other, as wedding gifts, even as consolation to the people of the USA on 9th November 2016. Sometime fourth member of the band, percussionist Andre Ferrari, also a member of show-stopping Bokante, was not present tonight.
Probably the most remarkable aspect of the trio is Johansson’s centre-stage nyckelharpa. This is a bowed, keyed fiddle, documented as far back in fact as the mid-14th century. The sound Johansson produces is loud, clean and precise, yet to this listener does not necessarily lend itself to variation in dynamics. However the nyckelharpa’s arresting sound, the lyrical beauty and intricacy of the compositions, a uniformly high level of musicianship with seemingly effortless precision and group synchrony, means that it comes as no surprise to hear that Vasen is a major hit in the USA whether collaborating with jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy, or touring to considerable acclaim on the Bluegrass circuit. The group have released quite a number of CDs over the years, the latest being ‘Brewed’ on label NorthSide Records.
The first piece tonight, ‘Vasenvalsen’, a lilting then typically breakneck waltz composed by Marin, showcases his highly accomplished command of his instrument, whilst Johansson’s nyckelharpa gives as good as it gets, at times threatening to dominate with almost uniform fortissimo. Tallroth’s guitar meanwhile contains the whole with sensitive and subtle support, and as the gig unfolds increasingly impresses with rhythmic drive and counter melody.
The mainstay of Vasen’s repertoire however is the polka, a foot-tapping example of which is the second tune of the night, ‘Sommarpolska’ (Summer polka – composed by Tallroth reportedly whilst feeling ill one winter past and yearning for summer.) In this the nyckelharpa’s strong voice sits well in what sounds like a fascinating cross between celtic folk tune and baroque dance. Though stand-outs were many, special mention can be made of the charming, primarily pizzicato piece, ‘Lilla Kulturbidragsvalsen’ (The Little Culture Support Waltz) as well as the gentle and lyrical final encore, ‘Tanja’.
Before leaving we are enjoined to “meet each other here again in 15 years”, although one hopes it will not be as long as that before this vibrant and highly polished band returns to Edinburgh with their most distinctive version of Swedish Uppland sound.