Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Iceland Overture
Réminiscence du Nord
Hekla (1961)
Elegy (1961)
Motet Choir of Hallgrim's Church; Schola Cantorum
Iceland SO/En Shao
rec Reykjavik, 1998-9
BIS-CD-1030 [64.41]
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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 interest.

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 same world.

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.

Rob Barnett

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