Leifs is nothing if not idiosyncratic. After hearing all these BIS discs
and ones furnished by the Icelandic Music Information Centre I am sure I
could recognise his orchestral style 'blindfold.' It is tonal, rough-hewn,
original, only intermittently engaged by melody and much taken with rhythmic
The Overture manages to bring off the oxymoronic combination
of icy gauntness and encouragement. This piece moves into dance (another
Leifs hallmark) but this is dance which is as much about impact as about
rhythm. The melodic meat delivered by the violins is part relaxed regret
and part frenetic. The choral peroration combines sharp rhythmic snap with
hints of Dies Irae.
Contrast this with the Requiem whose language is distant .... remote
and very much of a piece with Herbert Howells' Take Him Earth for Cherishing.
This music seems tuned to the slowed tolling of bells.
The Loftr Suite (the Loftr overture is on another disc
in the BIS series) deploys bells and chains amid a flow of music akin to
Frankel's symphonies. Leifs' parataxical style is not completely successful
leaving the impress of a work of unfinished odds and ends. Along the way
there are some arresting moments in which a voyage through mist is suggested.
The Invocation (track 5) is neither meek nor mild; rather is it defiant
- more of an imperative summons than a plea. The Funèbre movement
is not a march executed by any biped but rather the crippled shamble of some
Yeatsian creature. The finale is furious with petulant quietly sprouting
fanfares for the trumpets.
The Réminiscence du Nord was first recorded by the Iceland
SO conducted by Antolisch in 1960. Paul Zukofsky (a long-time champion of
Leifs who recorded the epic Baldr for CP²) included it in an
all-Leifs concert in 1969. It is more emotionally engaged than Dettifoss
and includes dance-like elements comparable with Copland or perhaps with
Hovhaness - though chillier. The lovely Elegy serenely wanders the
Hekla refers to the Icelandic volcano. Leifs witnessed the
momentous eruption that took place in the 1950s and its etched impact expresses
itself through this tone poem. Rather like Dettifoss it has an objective
air about it. The music does not suggest to me any human observer. The notes
seem to emerge from the hot rocks, fumeroles and chiroplastic floes. Lava
and magma erupt, stones are heaved like great mortar shells high into the
super-heated air. The percussion specification for the work reads like a
shopping list from a demonic orchestra. In fact hearing the music and seeing
the list I wondered if Bernard Herrmann saw the score before writing his
fantasy film music for Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Sirens,
great bells, tuned stones, giant ship chains and synthesised cannon and shotgun
reports all slam and shudder through this extraordinary score. It is eventful
music and as skilled in the conjuring of suspenseful tension as it is in
the Varèse-like breaking of that tension. The notes by the orchestra's
percussionist add greatly to the awesome pleasure of this piece. This version
includes the ad libitum choral contribution. The choir was not included
on the Zukofsky ITIM disc. This would make a wonderful DVD project.
Both Shao-conducted CDs have liner notes by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson.