When I received Ole Bull–Stages of Life from 2L Recordings in Norway, I suddenly realized that I’ve been playing a game for some time with these releases. The front covers of most 2L albums share a similar design–fonts, themes, overall visual uniformity despite vastly different images. So I feel a moment of anticipation when I load the disc into my player and hit play before really settling down with the jewel case to see what’s up. I have no idea what’s going to come out of those speakers. With 2L, it can be anything. It can be a lush Mozart trio quartet, or it can be a strange experimental sojourn into the land of naturally manipulated sound.
When the first sounds of Ole Bull emerged, I was pleasantly surprised. Full orchestra, early to mid-Romantic, violin concerto here, violin and piano duo there, glorious music that lifts your spirits with its vivacity and briskness. My first listen to Ole Bull was uninterrupted, and by that I mean I got through the entire album, all five pieces, without even bothering to check the liner notes. I had no idea who or what an Ole Bull was supposed to be? Was it a Norwegian folk hero? Or just a term for Norwegian strength and endurance through the winter months?
As it turns out, Ole Bull (1810-1880) was a celebrated Norwegian violinist who has been called “the Nordic Paganini.” He was a strong and athletic player, a true virtuoso as well as a charismatic performer, and he is cherished by the people of Norway for “his pioneering and dynamic role in the movement for a national identity in the fields of music and dramatic arts.” (He worked quite closely with Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson at his theater in Bergen.) Stages of Life is another one of those 2L Recordings that works entirely within a certain idea, a reason for this particular album to exist.
Ole Bull–Stages of Life consists of five pieces that Bull composed and played during his career. He loved European folk music in general, and he used those traditional themes in his compositions. Ole Bull was the only person to have played these pieces, and presumably they have not been performed since his death 140 years ago. Violin player Annar Folleso and pianist Wolfgang Plagge worked with an incomplete manuscript to rebuild the composition–Plagge, in particular was very familiar with Bull’s style and technique. The result of that painstaking research is this album, featuring Annar Folleso and Wolfgang Plagge backed by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, conducted by Eun Sun Kim.
How does it sound? This is a 2L Recording. It sounds incredible. I’m particularly fond of the balance between the soloists and the orchestra, how they are linked organically and yet spaced so the energy from the violin and the piano reaches the listener at full strength. This rare music, however, more than matches the effort it took to retrieve it from the ether. I enjoy how Ole Bull employed those familiar folk themes in such a fluid way. More than once I thought, “Hey, I know this!” and I would check the liner notes and no, I didn’t know that after all. It’s an album that toys with your mind in a pleasant way as it soothes your soul.