Folk meets baroque

Violinist Kreeta-Maria Kentala, a Finnish pioneer in early classical music, was born in Kaustinen, the hotbed of Finland’s pelimanni (spelman) folk music tradition. These two musical languages, classical violin and folk fiddling, have in recent years carried on a lively dialogue in her music. 

On her solo album Side by Side (Alba Records, 2016) Kentala blends Bach’s solo violin series with the Kaustinen pelimanni repertoire, making bold splices directly from one style to another. A reinvention of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons recorded with the group Barocco Boreale (The Folk Seasons, Alba Records, 2016) brings fresh folk-swing and daring continuo figures to this familiar work.

“Often when I practice, I also play solo repertoire, and I happened to play some Kaustinen pieces in between the Bach. That made me think of combining them, and the result was Side by Side. First I thought of doing separate series: a series of Kaustinen dances alongside Bach, but then I decided to mix the works up.”

In the E major series, each section begins with Bach before slipping as imperceptibly as possible over to Kaustinen, for instance “Gavotte en Rondeau” leads completely naturally into “Pikkulukkarin sottiisi” [“Little Cantor’s Schottische”]. In the D minor series, the marching order is the reverse. Side by Side has won several prizes in Finland including Album of the Year from the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) and the Classical Emma or ‘Finnish Grammy’.

As Kentala sees it, though the dances in the Bach series are highly refined, their core as far as dance is concerned is much the same as in Kaustinen pelimanni music, which is after all dance music too.

“People reacted very enthusiastically right away, from the first concerts,” she says. “After all Kaustinen music really has a spellbinding power, which doesn’t pale even alongside the world’s most spellbinding music, which really gets under your skin – that is, Bach. And the outcome of combining these also feels like more than the sum of their parts.”

Kentala and Barocco Boreale remake The Four Seasons in their own style. They chose the popular work as their debut recording so as to raise awareness of to this new ensemble.

“In a way, the colourfulness of the music and the descriptive sonnets that lie behind it allowed us a free hand, especially for the wild and free continuo group, which experiments with all kinds of fun ideas. Four of the six violinists come from a pelimanni background, which you can really hear in their bold swing.”

Crossing borders

At the moment, crossing genre boundaries in the direction of early music seems to be a natural way to expand the range of expression in folk music circles. Kentala has taught baroque violin playing to folk music students at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, and is delighted to see this growing diversity of styles.

“I’ve played modern violin alongside the baroque violin, which at the time was considered most improper. Back then everything was so new, you had to fight to be able to play early music; there were early-music specialists and then there were other players. Nowadays people play both modern and baroque while contemporary composers write music for old instruments and so on. For me, being able to circulate in different genres has been a richness.”

Folk music as a birthright

Pelimanni music has always been with Kentala through it all, though.

“I didn’t learn to play baroque until I was an adult. On the other hand, I never studied pelimanni music at all, I’ve just played it since I was little. I can certainly explain how a baroque-era minuet is phrased, but I can’t really analyze a Kaustinen jenkka (schottische) much – I can just play you an example.”

The ideal tone and style differ somewhat in Kentala’s two musical languages. During the Side by Side project, the actual playing styles converged during the process.

“I started phrasing the Kaustinen music in a somewhat livelier way, bringing out more of the light and shadows. It is different to play by yourself compared to with a big pelimanni group and accompaniment. The Bach pieces are technically really difficult so you can easily end up just focusing on playing without mistakes. Alongside the Kaustinen pieces, I get more lightness and fluency into them, which I think benefits them greatly!”

Many in Finland now use the term ‘folk-baroque’ to describe the meeting of these two worlds. Kentala spread the term in Finland by using it as the title of her 2005 album. She’s amused that the term has since then become established here.

“Why not, I think it’s a good rhyming name! Sometime people ask funny questions like, so how do you play this folk-baroque? I don’t actually play that, but rather folk and baroque.”

Life as a independent artist

Kentala’s career is an exciting turn as she has for the first time in 20 years given up her teaching posts and is playing music as a freelancer, on a five-year state artist grant. For a musician focusing on live shows, the Finnish market is clearly too limited.

“I’ve been through all the festivals here many times. I’m now aiming more clearly overseas.” 

Performances abroad this year include the Göttingen International Handel Festival in Germany as well as the London BBC Proms with various line-ups.