Album Title: Sommernatt - Songs by Johannes Haarklou
Performers: Linda Øvrebø, soprano / Kristin Fossheim, piano
Label: 2L, 062-SACD
Playing time: 43'40"
Recorded: 6-9 Oct 2008

There’s something in the air that draws me close to these songs despite the composer being a total stranger and the lyrics a foreign language. Johannes Haarklou (1847-1925) was born in a Norwegian farmstead in the family’s namesake at the foot of the great Jostedal glacier. From where he lived at latitude 61°29' north (supposedly much colder than Toronto’s 43°40'), Haarklou’s songs feel incredibly warm to me. If the songs by Sverre Jordan (1889-1972), another exceptional Norwegian composer, could be aptly described as the romances of a poet [2L-065-SACD], Haarklou’s are the simple gifts of a peasant.
Haarklou’s father was a farmer and teacher. Instead of following his footsteps, young Johannes forged his own path with musical talent that won him a scholarship to study in Germany's Leipzig. Upon returning to Bergen, Haarklou began his career as composer and conductor. His contributions to the musical culture of the city earned him support to further his studies in Berlin. By 1880 Haarklou left Bergen and settled in Kristiania as parish organist. Kristiania at the time was growing as the administrative, economic and cultural centre that soon became the capital of Oslo. But Haarklou’s humble income nudged him into becoming a music critic on the side. His dream was to become a composer and he defied the notion that music was for the privileged few. He toured the country giving organ recitals for the mass public and organized popular concerts for the workers. He called upon parliament members to support symphonic concerts for the working class. He worked hard and struggled harder to have his music performed. But the toughest battle was gaining parliament recognition to grant him a state salary. The victory came eventually in 1910 when Haarklou was 63.

Of the 130 compositions that comprise his piano and organ works, choral works and operas, concertos and symphonies, the 18 songs represented on this CD seem to be lightweight and insignificant. But they touch my heart profoundly. These modest compositions bring out a positive and motivating message. Believe in yourself and you will succeed. Cliché I know. But imagine a farm boy who worked his way out, never forgot his roots and vowed to share his hard-earned fruits with the common people. Imagine a musician who had to apply for a stipend year after year until the age of 63. Yet he continued to believe in himself. Most of us would have given up by 40.

I have also been deeply touched by Tchaikovsky’s songs. That’s because they are human, soulful and sad. Haarklou touched me because he’s sincere, because his songs reveal his unconditional devotion to life and his gratitude towards the everlasting grace he received. Even for the melancholic titles that are supposed to be sad,like "Synnøves Sang" and "Efter Afskeden" (After the Farewell) I felt blessings and hope. "Hel Mig Mime Strenge" (Heal Me My Strings) somehow expresses more earthy emotions as if unraveling the entangled heart strings of a tormented soul. Soprano Linda Øvrebø expresses the contradicting emotions of passionate longing and resolute blitheness with spontaneity while pianist Kristin Fossheim reiterates the rapid mood swings with wittily crafted accompaniment.

I’m surprised that 2L didn’t furnish the booklet with detailed programmatic notes for each title except for a few songs and some background info on the poets whose works Haarklou picked from for lyrics. There’s also no English translation of the lyrics, not even the song titles which I fortunately had help from Ms. Fossheim. As they say, music is a universal language. I don’t actually need to know the lyrics to appreciate the songs' nocturnal beauty like the scintillatingly fairylike "Mainat" (May Night) and the lovingly tender "Sommernat" (Summer Night) on track 5 in contrast to the buzzing and animated "Sommernat" on track 11. The two most endearing night songs have to be "Hvad Suser I Natten?" (What Sighs in the Night?), where the melody flows gracefully on the simple yet lyrical accompaniment; and "Gyngevise" (Lullaby) where Øvrebø sings an angelic prayer over Fossheim’s dreamlike arpeggios.     

Traces of Norwegian nationalism are imbued naturally in Haarklou’s romantic songs and pastoral songs. The former includes "Ved Havet" (By the Ocean) which evokes the longing for the return of a stray soul; and "Tonen" (The Tune) and "Tora Synger" (Tora Sings) in which faithfulness are sworn, "Te Kærasten Min" (To My Love) which is sparkling with youthful infatuation and "Med Røde Roser" (With Red Roses) which is impassioned with mature love.

The pastoral songs seem to give Haarklou more creative freedom with the piano accompaniment (reminding me again of Tchaikovsky’s imaginative introductions and figurations) and include "Træet" (Tree), "Haukeligauken" (The Haukeli Cuckoo), "Vaar Von" (Hope of Spring) and "Og Solen Gaar Op" (And the Sun Rises). Last but not least is the final track "Minde" (Memories), which serves as a beautiful prologue to Haarklou’s positive attitude towards life. What more could have deserved our Blue Moon Award than these deeply touching works presented by soprano Linda Øvrebø and pianist Kristin Fossheim, all vividly captured by the exceptional sound quality which has become the trademark of 2L?