Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Saga Symphony (1941)
Iceland SO/Osmo Vänskä
rec Reykjavik, March 1995
world premiere complete recording
BIS-CD-730 [54.27]
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Leifs wrote this work during the period March 1941 to July 1942. It was written in the wake of the premiere of the Organ Concerto during which most of the Berlin audience walked out leaving only 20 in the hall at the end of the work.

The composer lived with his German concert pianist wife at Ehrbrucke at the time. In return for his discretion and occasional complicity (the Nazis broadcast one of his talks to Iceland) his Jewish wife (a concert pianist, blacklisted of course) and two daughters were not harmed.

The Saga Symphony also known as Saga Heroes was, in some part, inspired by the pattern of Liszt's Faust Symphony which Leifs had heard in Leipzig in 1916. Its genesis and movement titles owe all to Leifs' identification with the same Edda characters that in other Aryan contexts should have guaranteed Leifs a ready audience in Hitler's Germany. However his music was never going to be ideologically acceptable.

What of it? It is instantly memorable for its unadorned style. Long-lined ideas are not a hallmark of his writing. In the first movement (Skarphedinn) and the fourth (Glamr og Grettir) Leifs batters us with a sequence of exciting off-beat hammer blows punched out with great definition. A wide dynamic range is called for from the just audible to the deafening. Both extremes are there in the first movement. Schuman-like writing for the brass can be heard in Gudrun Osvifrsdottir (2nd) movement mingled with a declamatory expression heard during the wilder moments in Nielsen 5. The scherzo Bjorn ad baki Kara whispers, and patters at first like a light-footed night-chase with much pizzicato and with convulsively spat out percussive shots and clangs - a Leifs signature. The courtly dances of the Thormodr Kolbrunarskald prepare the way for the raw, spare punches of a finale that also offers some moments of affecting rural piping of a decidedly Celtica Nova type. However the abiding impressions are of a welter of stamping, of activity always controlled and defined but goaded onwards. If ultimately this does not have truly symphonic shaping the work's tableaux are the stuff of the frosty dreams which make up the sagas of Njal, Gretts, Laxdaela, Fostbraeda and the Heimskringla.

The orchestra includes six nordic lurs heard at end of the fifth and final movement. Unusual instruments used include various sizes and type of stone, an iron anvil, shields of wood, leather and iron and big wooden hammers truck against the sides of huge wooden containers.

The symphony was premiered during the September 1950 Nordic Music Days Festival in Helsinki with Jussi Jalas conducting. Jalas directed the work again in 1972 this time in Reykjavik and four years later recorded it for release on the Iceland Music Information Centre LP now superseded by this disc. The Jalas LP had each of the five movements considerably shortened. Counting recording sessions this probably only its fifth performance.

Surely the definitive recording of one of the strangest of symphonies from the 1940s - allied to no school or calling - sui generis.

Rob Barnett

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