Thursday, 17 May 2012

Icelandic drama

The music of Iceland's greatest composer, Jón Leifs (1899-1968), includes some of the most individual works ever written. 

I mentioned in an earlier post, Hekla, the piece said to be the loudest piece of classical music of all time - a spectacular depiction of the eruption of Iceland's angriest volcano, scored for four sets of rocks hit with hammers, steel plates, anvils, sirens, cannons, metal chains, choir, large orchestra and organ. It's a thrillingly no-holds-barred piece, intended to stun the listener into awe at the power of nature. 

It isn't alone. From the same cycle of pieces comes Geysir, an orchestral piece that also begins by quietly building anticipation for the explosion of a natural phenomenon through deep sonorities and that mysterious flow of harmony that is characteristic of the composer - a flow based on the movement of  two lines, usually playing in parallel fifths between the orchestral parts. This has deep Icelandic roots, deriving from a type of folk-song called  tvisongur (meaning 'two-song', or duet). This breaks the music free from conventional tonality and creates fresh harmonies that sound strange to our ears, as well as making a wonderful primaeval sound. You won't miss the moment when the explosion of superheated water erupts. Leifs has a genius for conjuring such effects. 

After a violent volcano and an energetic geyser why not visit Iceland's stunning waterfall, Dettifoss - the most powerful in Europe? Leifs takes you to 'see' it with his music - another stunning piece for baritone, chorus and orchestra. Again, we approach the scene of natural magnificence gradually, with a very slow crescendo and tvisongur writing creating an expectation of something to thrill the spirit getting every nearer. As we arrive the chorus sings its hymn - bardic music sung to the rhythms of ancient chants - as the orchestra conjures the violent beauty of the waterfall. The baritone soloist enters, still singing in the tvisongur spirit, against this thunderous backdrop. After a deafening climax, the music draws away becomes reflective for a while but the waterfall looms back into view again for one last, impressive time before Dettifoss vanishes from earshot and silence falls.

From the most turbulent evocation of moving water to an evocation of drift ice in Hafís for chorus and orchestra, where the tvisongur technique is put to use to conjure a scene of bleak beauty. The top orchestral layer of woodwinds gives the music an extra level of chill. The form of the piece is remarkably similar to that of its predecessors, but the climaxes here makes striking use of a feature in Leifs's music that we haven't heard much of yet - the sustained use of harsh, heavy accented rhythms. The chorus is used to shroud the bleak, icy scene in mysticism, though they also partake of these primaeval rhythms at times.

These four pieces show one side of Leifs's music, perhaps somewhat obsessively. As consolation for your ears after such sonic batterings, please have a listen to Leifs's last work, the beautiful and tranquil Consolation, his intermezzo for string orchestra. You will hopefully recognise that the lines have a strong tendency to move in parallel fifths again. Whereas that process created the effect of iciness in Hafís here it conjures warmth, harmony and tenderness.

Suitably rested, let's press on - albeit gently to begin with! If you want to hear another side to Jón Leifs, please try out his Icelandic Folk Dances (Part Two here), where the composer strikes a much more conventional - if highly attractive - note. They will win over anyone who likes a good tune, colourfully orchestrated (here with a little help from Leopold Weninger). They are 'easy listening' after the likes of Dettifoss and Hekla!

Now brace yourselves again for the stupendous Organ Concerto. This consists of three movements, the first ('Introduction') and the finale being short but explosive. At the centre of the concerto, however, stands a Passacaglia which (in the manner to which we have now become accustomed) begins very quietly and only gradually crescendos towards to thunderous climax. Clusters, massing sonorities, swirling organ figuration, battering drums, those parallel chords...all play their part into making this piece such an exhilarating journey. By listening to it after the Icelandic Folk Dances, however, you will hear that the influence of Icelandic folk song can be heard in the melodic shapes of the concerto. 

I'll leave Leifs there for a while, but steel your ears for there will be more to come in the future!

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