Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Organ Concerto (1930)
Variazioni Pastorale - Variations on a Theme by Ludwig van Beethoven (1930)
Fine II - Farewell to earthly life (1963)
Dettifoss (1964)

Iceland SO/En Shao
rec Reykjavik, 1998-99
BIS-CD-930 [56.02]

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Leifs is no wheedler or cajoler of audiences and concert promoters. He belongs in the same select cohort as Nikos Skalkottas, Havergal Brian, Allan Pettersson and Khaikhosru Sorabji. All to various extents affected indifference to the neglect of their music by bureaucrats and executants and all have benefited from the CD age.

This is not to say that Leifs wrote music without intrinsic attraction. In fact hearing the four BIS CDs of the orchestral music I was surprised to note so many instantly captivating works.

The Organ Concerto is not one of those works. It is sullen and Gothic - shorn of any audience ingratiation factor. It can easily sound like music for a dismal hopeless trek across limitless snow fields - like Vaughan Williams' music from Sinfonia Antartica. The aural equivalent of maze-marching can be heard in clashing hymns rather like Liszt's Hunnenschlacht and echoing Nielsen 4 and 5 in its suggestion of chaos clashing with harmony. Yet again the listener is struck by the extremes of dynamic range as well as by the Stygian baritonal blare of the brass section and the howls and squeals of the woodwind against emphatic drum punctuation. This is not dodecaphonic but surfaces are unadorned and brutal. Some of this would make glorious music for an adaptation of Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings'. It remains to be seen how Howard Shore will fare in the film trilogy due to appear in cinemas over the next two years - starting Christmas 2001. In any event Leifs would have made an ideal composer for the onslaught of nightmare Orcish armies.

A less thorny approach is encountered in the Beethoven Variations (Theme and ten variants) which date from the same year as the Concerto. The theme is from the LvB String Trio Op. 8. The Variations are strong and gentle music, melodious to the point of sounding, at times, like a French operatic interlude. At Var. 4 the serenading character begins to decay into something sallow. Var. 6 is in the form of a jerky military march of injured automata lurching towards negation and chaos. The quasi grave (Var 9) yet again sounds very much like Roy Harris with its sombre brass and drums. It is worth noting that in 1930 Roy Harris had no international reputation and a modest standing so far as the USA is concerned so this 'echo' is purely coincidental. Var 10 and the reprise lead us back to operatic intermezzi, to Gounod and to Bizet.

Fine II is from that cloudburst of productivity in the early 1960s. It is a work for vibraphone and string orchestra. The vibraphone is played by Reynir Sigurdsson. The music conjures the movement of marine ice floes, gigantic not grinding or bitter. The work has a slow drawling power and with the striking presence of that vibraphone (try 5.40) Roy Harris seems not far away yet again. A wonderful introduction to the music of this composer.

Intriguingly Fine I and Fine II (both subtitled 'Farewell to Earthly Life') were written to provide a finale to any orchestral work left incomplete at its death. They are associated with Leifs' most ambitious works: the three Edda oratorios. These are The Creation of the World (1936-39), The Life of the Gods (1951-66) and the incomplete Twilight of the Gods - all unrecorded. Are they next on your list BIS?

Dettifoss (the great Icelandic waterfall) begins in and ultimately retreats into stony Tallis-like arcana. Unlike some composers where you are aware of the human observer in the foreground, Leifs has you believing that the music is the scenery. In some strange way this music embodies the objective; it is the rock and the waters itself. You are alien to it and it is alien to you. The music is implacable, careless of you and your troubles - outside temporal limitations. It came as a surprise, after hearing the music, to read that this is one of Leifs' nature pieces that, in fact, has the observer (the poet) walking towards the waterfall, observing it and then walking away. The vehemence of the more furious music in Dettifoss can be compared with the awesome thrashing of some fearsome engine with con-rod buckled, crippled yet horrifically driven.

All the recordings in this orchestral series of CDs (4 to date, 2001) were recorded in the roomy stone acoustic of Hallgrím's Church, Reykjavik.

All but Fine II are world première recordings.

There are of course some other Leifs recordings including ones from Chandos and from the Icelandic Music Information Centre. None however competes directly with this disc work for work. Everything here is done with burning or smouldering conviction.

Rob Barnett

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