Julevariasjoner translates as "Christmas Variations," and that is just what this disc by Norwegian pianist Wolfgange Plagge is: a set of variations on Christmas carols, some Norwegian, but many that will be recognized anywhere that Christmas is celebrated.
Plagge is one of those prodigies we hear about from time to time, writing and composing from age four. He has been winning musical prizes since he was ten. He has a particular fondness for medieval music, which I actually don't find odd in the context of this collection: while not medieval, many of these songs go way back.
The traditional Norwegian carol "Kling no Klokka" appears in a fresh guise, while "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," under the title "HØyr Kor Englehæren," goes through a full range of variations. The treatments titled "Her Kommer Dine Arme Små" and "Mitt Hjerte ei Alltid Vanker" are particularly beautiful. There are also many songs I don't recognize, whether just because they are new to me or because they are so completely transformed that I cannot connect them to anything I know. And that's really beside the point.
Plagge treats these songs very seriously, not so much as indicators of the season but as music. "Kimer I Klokker," for example, receives a full-blown treatment, approaching the complexity of a sonata, while in the final track, "Folkefrelsar," the song begins as a lean, spare set of chords through which a very familiar melody appears, and then disappears, then develops into a very richly textured piece that again fades into a quiet set of chords. Of course, it's a game musicians play ("Hey, ma! Look what I did with this theme by Paganini!"), but it does produce some really nice listening.
No, this is not a particularly weighty album, but it is quality: the musicianship is superb, the variations are thoughtful and interesting, and the experience, while low-key is, perhaps because of that, one that leads to reflection. During the frenzy of the December holidays, maybe we need a little bit of that.