Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Guðrúnarkvida (1940)
Nótt (1964)
Helga kvi
ða Hundingsbana (1964)
Grógaldr (1965)
Þórunn Guðmundsdóttir (mezzo);Guðbjörn Guðbjörnsson (ten); Guðjón Óskarsson (bass) (Guðrúnarkvida)
Einar Clausen (ten); Bergþór Pálsson (bar); (Nótt)
Guðrún Edda Gunnarsdóttir (alto); Jóhann Smári Sævarsson (bass) (Helga kviða  Hundingsbana)
Guðrún Edda Gunnarsdóttir (alto); Finnur Bjarnason (ten) (Grógaldr)
Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra/Johan Arnell
rev May-Oct 1999, Langholt Church, Iceland.
World premiere recordings

Leifs, the farmer's son moved with his family to Reykjavik and, through his early teens, realised both his musical drive and the fact that he would have to leave Iceland to develop that drive fully. He left for Germany at age 17 and by the 1930s he was living with his wife, the concert pianist Annie Riethof. Jón left Riethof in Germany when he was appointed as music director of the Icelandic Broadcasting Service. Returning to Germany after two years he found that because of Annie's Jewish descent she was no longer permitted to perform and his own music was also banned. The family including their two daughters moved to Sweden in 1944. Separation and war ended his marriage and after a decade of touring Europe he settled in Iceland and remarried. Leifs was heavily involved, rather like Atterberg, in the promotion of the intellectual property rights of composers.

The compact cantatas featured here are not otherwise available. BIS have tracked their way through many of the orchestral works but have so steered clear of these works. One is from 1940, during a time when Leifs was struggling to obtain his release from Germany. The other three belong to roughly the same period in Iceland.

Guðrúnarkvida (1940): This is the earliest work. It is scored for mezzo, tenor and bass with orchestra. The male voices - dominant at first - spin an essentially lyrical line. The music rises to a thunderous stamping perigee. The vocal parts are operatic with the lyricism given a terse rather than florid fluency. This represents a composer who is economical in his language. The work is rather like a less elaborate version of the Gurrelieder or Hanson's Lament for Beowulf. The spare lines will be familiar if you know the Sallinen operas. The approach has a Holstian spareness and in the mezzo's voice a touch of Sibelius's Luonnotar - an eloquence rising to nobility and fading into a lovingly calculated pianissimo high note.

The other three cantatas are from Icelandic days. Nótt has the two men in resolute darkly spoken mood. There is something here of Fricker's much under-valued Vision of Judgement. There is no surface glamour. Leifs produces extraordinary orchestral effects like the sharpened swirling screeching violin figure at 8.10 developing into a violent berserker patterned accelerando and falling away into a niente among hints of birdsong. As in the cases of Helga kviða Hundingsbana and Grógaldr Leifs refuses to take sanctuary amid profuse 'undergrowth'. In the former the heroic slow-motion hammer swing of the music is memorable as well as the slip and slide of the violins almost in unconscious tribute to Hovhaness (e.g. Fra Angelico Overture). The latter again sets no store by loquacity. It tramps as aggressively as the thudding punctuation of Rosenberg's Symphony No. 3.

Leifs' face, uncannily similar to Stanley Spencer's, stares out from this well-constructed disc cover. No jewel case; instead a three fold envelope with a pocket for the booklet and the usual mounting stem for the disc.

Rob Barnett


Helga Sif Gudmundsdóttir
Iceland Music Information Centre
Sidumula 34
108 Reykjavik
phone +354 568 3122
fax +354 568 3124

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