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Henry Purcell, Nick Drake And Leonard Cohen: Songwriters On Equal Footing

Baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi (left) and singer Susanna Wallumrød mix songs by Henry Purcell, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen.
Andreas Ulvo
ECM Records
Baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi (left) and singer Susanna Wallumrød mix songs by Henry Purcell, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen.

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

Classical musicians don't thrive on Mozart and Beethoven alone; they've long been drawn to popular music. Bach scholar and keyboardist Joshua Rifkin released The Baroque Beatles Book in the mid-1960s. More recently, concert pianist Christopher O'Riley has created lush, almost Lisztian arrangements of songs by Radiohead, Elliott Smith and an entire album's worth of Nick Drake. Not to be outdone, the Ensemble Phoenix Munich has a new album (out soon) called Requiem for a Pink Moon: An Elizabethan Tribute to Nick Drake. I wouldn't blame anyone for declaring a Nick Drake moratorium right about now.

And yet, released today is If Grief Could Wait, an intriguing album that includes — you guessed it — a Nick Drake cover ("Which Will") plus a couple of Leonard Cohen songs, a handful by Henry Purcell and a couple by singer and album co-creator Susanna Wallumrød.

What is refreshing about Wallumrød's approach — and that of her collaborator, baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi — is its honest simplicity. They are not trying to transform Drake and Cohen's songs (or even Purcell's for that matter) into "classical music." The instrumentation, lovingly performed and beautifully recorded, consists of Baroque harp, viola da gamba and nyckelharpa — an antiquated contraption that looks like a cross between a fiddle and keyboard.

Wallumrød, with her girlish, breathy, vaguely Bjork-like timbre, doesn't try to sing Purcell like an opera singer. Perhaps that's because she can't. The Norwegian singer-songwriter isn't a classical musician. Instead, she heads up the synth-pop band Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. Her performances — as with those of Pessi — feel like personal expressions from the heart, perfectly suited to the songs they've gathered for If Grief Could Wait.

Drake, Cohen and Purcell may at first seem like odd bedfellows, but each is adept at creating claustrophobic spaces of melancholy and lovelorn grief. And even with songs like Purcell's "O Solitude" and "If Grief has Any Power to Kill," Cohen's "You Know Who I Am" and Drake's "Which Will," the album doesn't come off as a downer. It somehow teeters on the verge, just as the album's title implies. The Cohen and Drake songs benefit from the early music instruments, and Purcell's from the relaxed, intimate vocal delivery. If you had never before heard a single tune from any of these composers you might mistake the entire album as birthed from a single source. (Except perhaps for Wallumrød's two contributions, which lack comparable textual heft and concision.)

The performance of Cohen's "Who By Fire" (heard above) is particularly evocative. Pessi's Baroque harp feels remarkably guitar-like against the nervous flutter of nyckelharpa keys and the haunting solo, played midway through by Marco Ambrosini.

If Grief Could Wait sounds better than it looks on paper. It could have ended up mannered (like the snippet of the Ensemble Phoenix disc I've heard), but instead it sounds like four musicians pouring their hearts into contemplative songs.

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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.