Music Review

Lending a voice to the Vikings

By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - What exactly did the Vikings sound like when they recited the verses of their great epic poem, the Edda, in their great halls in the 7th or 8th century? There is no way of knowing, of course, but the brilliant American-born medievalist Benjamin Bagby has come up with his own imaginative and harrowing guess in “The Rheingold Curse.’’

This 2001 work is a setting of the parts of the Edda devoted to the German-origin folk tales (tales crossed Europe easily in those days). Bagby has created vocal numbers of skin-peeling intensity, with interludes for solo flute and violin, skillfully knit into a drama. Sequentia, Bagby’s early music ensemble, gave the first Boston-area performance Saturday at Sanders Theatre in the Boston Early Music Festival.

Half of the audience was on its feet at the end. Why the other half wasn’t can be explained perhaps by a distaste for blood. There is a lot of it in “The Rheingold Curse.’’ There is also greed, longing, murder, revenge, shape-shifting, forced tribal marriage, suicide, and widowhood. Lots of widowhood.

When it came to re-creating the sounds of Viking storytelling, Bagby had little on which to depend since there is no musical notation in an oral tradition. He relied on recordings of Icelandic folk music and his own vast knowledge of medieval European music and instrumentation. From this, he invented a style of singing (he prefers the word “vocalization’’) that consists of long repetitions of simple vocal figures or gestures, within several simple modes (no long melodies, no complex harmony). The simplicity and repetitiveness of the musical line heightens one’s attention on the language and the story. Moments of spontaneous emotion show up like a flare, as when Gudrun longs for her husband, or when Brunnhilde cackles at her revenge on Gudrun. (It’s a long story.)

Wonderfully, Bagby and his colleagues sang in Old Icelandic, and one felt the pungent beauty of the language, with its rich vowels, strong accents, and the occasional tantalizing recognition of a root-related English word. English translations were projected on a screen behind the musicians.

The three singers, flutist, and fiddle-player sang and played without interruption for a steady hour and a half. Bagby himself was a central player, as narrator at a six-string medieval harp, adding vivid spoken nuance and dramatic gesture to a natural baritone sound.

For anyone who thinks of early music performance as an archival exercise in “correctness,’’ here is proof of how much it can be - and must be - about fantasy and inspiration as well.

“The Rheingold Curse’’
At: Sanders Theatre, Saturday