Saturday, 19 May 2012

Beyond Bjork

My love for the music of Jón Leifs has prompted me to look into what else Iceland has to offer listeners, musically-speaking - beyond Bjork, of course. Time for a brief and doubtless quite random survey!

The best place to begin, perhaps, is with Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927). Sveinbjörn is Iceland's Romantic composer and wrote the country's national anthem, Lofsöngur ('Hymn'). His song with chorus, Sverrir Konungur ('We are now king' - according to Google Translate!), sounds remarkably like Mussorgsky, with a dash of Mendelssohn when the chorus enter. It's a winning song. The Mendelssohn influence dominates in such pleasant piano miniatures as the Minuet and Trio and his Idyll and Víkivaki (a type of folk-dance). For a short, light orchestral piece, please try his Festival Polonaise. (A world away from Leifs, he!)

Sveinbjörn came to live in Edinburgh - a journey which, one hundred years on, another Icelandic composer took, namely Hafliði Hallgrímsson (b.1941). Now, Hafliði (known to us Brits as Hallgrimsson) is the only living Icelandic Classical composer whose music I already knew. The composer offers us five tasters of his music on his own You Tube channel: two tasty excerpts from his large-scale Passion setting (Passia I - and Passia 2), a lovely piano piece for children called Old Sacred Window and a whirling one for adults called Fley -  both of which, in their different ways, show the influence of Messiaen, though the latter has something of Bartok too. Bartok's influence can also be heard in the extracts from Poemi for violin and string orchestra - an exciting, wonderful-sounding piece. The only work of his I already knew, were you wondering, is the Cello Concerto - a strong work that raised my expectations of the composer. This sounds like good, mainstream contemporary music - again, a world away from Leifs.

For a very recent piece that does sound a bit like Leifs, how about Hrím ('Freezing') for chamber orchestra by a more avant-garde young composer, Anna Thorvaldsdottir - an imaginative soundscape that sounds like a landscape of shimmering light on ice and snow, bleak but beautiful? We're in the world of Leifs's drift ice again! Anna's music is interesting on so many levels. Amidst all the wonderfully-wrought orchestral evocation of landscape and natural processes you can also hear lyrical melodic lines winding their way. It's music that seems to be dreaming. And Dreaming is the title of another piece of Anna's that uses the orchestra to conjure a captivating soundscape. I suppose, if I'm guessing, that her music is influences by the 'clouds' side of Ligeti's music. (No 'clocks' are involved in the making of this music!) Dreaming is not without a certain epic quality at its climaxes, albeit (being a contemporary composer, writing in the times we live in) that epic quality is highly constrained. Other works to explore include Streaming Arhythmia and, for something away from the orchestra, Hidden for solo percussionist on piano (ah, yes, I wrote that correctly! Fans of Henry Cowell will like this.) Anna (pictured below) is clearly a composer whose output needs following closely and her music should, hopefully, begin to spread far and wide.

As you may have gathered so far, Icelandic composers may be on an island midway between Europe and America but they are far from being isolated, drawing widely on all the major trends in the modern music of their day - which is why Leifs continues to be Iceland's most individual and original (and great) composer.

Haukur Tómasson (b.1960) is another Icelandic composer whose music fits comfortably into the mainstream of our time. If you fancy hearing a beautiful, fresh, tonal/modal piece of modern choral music then there's a lot to be said for listening to Haukur's beautiful Fognudur ('Joy'). Folk influences are easy to hear but they are allied to the post-Poulenc, post-Britten bittersweet harmonies and lively rhythms that make much contemporary choral music so immediately attractive. The composer's recent song-cycle/chamber opera Gudrun's Fourth Song, derived from the Scandinavian legends of the Edda, doesn't sound remotely Wagnerian, even in Brynhildur's Wedding Night. Solo violin and soprano play lead roles in the whole work, which uses modality to amplify the keening of the singer and which - from the extracts heard - promises to be a first-rate score. Something of the same soundworld, cast in purely instrumental terms, can be heard in the composer's delightful Flute Concerto.

The music of Jórunn Viðar (b.1918) seems to come from an earlier era, as in this rather French-sounding song, Júnímorgun ('June Morning') and Mamma ætlar að sofna ('Mummy is going to fall asleep'). 

For another burst of Icelandic avant-garderie, please try this highly evocative piece from Atli Heimir Sveinsson (b.1938), Haustmynd II ('Autumn Photo II') - avant-garderie in the service of atmosphere and tied into an attractive folk-like melodic profile which makes it easy to take to. Equally attractive and mixing the modernist with the traditional in a not dissimilar way is Atli Heimir's choral song The sick rose. The composer's ability to sound wholly traditional yet fresh can be judged from this irresistible song.

The music of Árni Björnsson (1905-1995) comes from a very different place, as you'll hear from his Romanza no. 1 for violin and piano, music as firmly in the Romantic tradition as Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson's, but displaying a sensibility that is close to that of the salons of Victorian Age Europe - despite occasional touches of modality. His Three Songs (1. La Belle, 2. Night, 3. Sunkissed Clouds) are winningly simple settings of Icelandic poetry, especially the hymn-like first song - the gem of the set.

For fans of solo flute music, Torkell Sigurbjornsson's Calaïs - a virtuoso piece depicting one of the sons of Boreas, the North Wind - is well worth hearing. This is a wonderfully exotic-sounding extension of the world of Debussy's Syrinx. Though Torkell (b.1938) is a composer with roots in the avant-garde, this piece shows him to be an accessible type of modernist. That is also demonstrated by this beautiful choral piece. Other works show him to be no modernist at all, as with Úr Gylfaginningu ('From Gylfaginning') for soprano and orchestra - a highly dramatic song, setting part of a famous Icelandic legend. This has a magic quality lovers of Sibelius will possibly find to their tastes. Clearly a composer with many sides. 

OK, after so many unfamiliar names it's time, I think, to round things up with a few more works by the great Jón Leifs

His Icelandic Overture (Part Two here) is a fairly early piece but typically unconventional in that it's not in sonata form or any standard overture form; no, it takes the form of eight old Icelandic songs for orchestra culminating in an exciting climatic chorus. Those pounding, accented rhythms towards the close are classic Leifs. There is no development.

Leifs's Landfall for orchestra depicts the sight of Iceland emerging through the mists as the composer returns home by sea. This takes the classic form (for this composer alone) of a slow crescendo with parallel fifths building towards a climax, full of further sharply accented chords and glorious harmonies - a noble vision with occasional shocks! As in the Icelandic Overture, the chorus makes a late but significant entry. 

On a much smaller scale, please take a listen to this little song by Leifs. It's his Lullaby. Now you didn't expect that, did you? There's more to this composer than ear-splitting orchestral spectacles! For songs with orchestra, there are his Two Songs, Op.14a (Moon Song and...Lullaby, yes, in its other guise) and these are just as gentle and individual. But for something really unexpected and absolutely magical by Leifs, you really must listen to his Requiem, Op.33b, a short, moving motet for unaccompanied chorus. The way this simple piece - as simple as a folk-song - moves between minor and major harmonies is deeply moving. Again, you didn't expect that, did you?

Right, that's enough Icelandic music for now. Góða nótt og dreymi þig vel!

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