Ever since Sinikka Langeland began recording in 1994, the composer, singer, kantele master, and musicologist has become almost inseparably identified with the music of the Finnskogen, folk music from "the forest of the Finns" in southeastern Norway. But she has also explored classical music both canonical and contemporary, as well as jazz. The kantele is a fingerpicked harp from the dulcimer and zither families with anywhere from 10 to 39 strings, and is played on a table. The Half-Finished Heaven is her fourth offering for ECM, and stands in marked contrast to her earlier albums. Its focus here is primarily on the sound of the kantele as a centering instrument in an instrumental ensemble -- there are only three vocal pieces among the 12 tracks. Her bandmembers are Lars Anders Tomter on viola, percussionist Markku Ounaskari, and saxophonist Trygve Seim. This music is "freer" than anything she's released previously. Two of the vocal songs contain the poems of Nobel prize winner Tomas Tranströmer, and one is an adapted Finnskogen polsdans (folk song). Langeland's intent with this recording was to explore the mysteries of nature, its hidden movements and grand gestures. "Hare Rune" commences the album solemnly, with gently played, cavernous tom-toms, smoky melodic tenor saxophone, and the sustained tones of the interwoven layers of plucked kanteles creating harmonic richness. Tranströmer's "Ljuset Strommar In" ("The Light Streams In") celebrates the emergence of the early spring from winter. Langeland's alto voice elliptically inhabits the lyric as Tomter's viola uses the low strings weight her vocal. The kantele adds color and the percussion creates a whispered pulse. "Caw of the Crane" is the album's heart. A dark, dissonant viola rumbles while glistening cymbals add contrast. The kantele adds a heartbeat, then a harmonic palette for the viola to shift and offer a lustrous if somewhat mournful melody. The interplay of kantele and viola is as beguiling as it is investigative. "The Magical Bird" is so sprightly, it's almost a dance. Seim's saxophone plays lyric rounds atop the snare as kanteles both plucked and strummed add a nearly exuberant force, urging the saxophonist to explore. He does so freely with a great range of expression; through all of the tune's interplay and improvisation, it contains an undeniable groove. "The Blue Tit’s Spring Song" may begin sparsely, with a call-and-response dialogue between kantele and viola, but Langeland asserts reel-like melody and the other players rally on tabla and tenor. By the middle, it's almost rocking as Langeland vigorously strums and plucks. While we may have become accustomed to Langeland's singing voice, The Half-Finished Heaven is so well-conceived and played, we don't really miss it. The album is breathtaking with quietly majestic interrogative beauty, and canny in its eloquence. It resists easy categorization and exceeds all expectations.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek