Sigurbjörnsson began his musical life singing
in the pop band 'Melchior'. He sang with them for two years before going
on to a more formal classical training, first in his native Iceland
and then in Utrecht, where he studied and wrote avant-garde music. His
music has varied from the extremely dissonant 'Symphony of Songs'
(1991), serialist music and music developing avant-garde trends of the
1960s and 1970s through to purely tonal pieces such as Stokkseryi
The church at Skalholt, Iceland, was built in 1956-1963
on the site of the great wooden medieval cathedral which lasted until
the 18th Century. Since 1975 the church has been the centre
of a summer music festival. The present work, Skalholtsmessa,
was premiered in 2000 at this Festival. Sigurbjörnsson's version
of the mass has a very distinctive cast. In place of the Introit there
is a setting of the 18th century hymn "A Beautiful Lyric".
Instead of the Latin Credo there is a Latin translation of Martin Luther's
Concession of Faith which is taken from a book, written in 1687,
believed to have been used at Skalholt School. The mass was premiered
on the Feast of St. Olafur Haraddsson, so the composer also included
part of the Sequence for the festival.
Of the soloists, the one name on this disc that I recognised
is the UK-based tenor, Finnur Bjarnason, who has appeared with Grange
Park Opera, Glyndebourne Touring Opera and Glyndebourne Opera. Soprano
Marta Gudrun Halldorsdottir has premiered much new music in Iceland.
As well as singing at Icelandic Opera she runs a parallel career singing
Baroque music. Her cool soprano, without too much vibrato, is very apt
for this music. Bass Benedikt Ingolfsson, with his surprisingly warm
dark voice, studied in The Hague and besides singing contemporary music,
sings much classical and pre-classical.
This mix of modern and early music in the soloists
is interesting as the Skalholt Mass has elements of both. Not only does
the chamber ensemble include a harpsichord, but it also includes a very
modern percussion section. The very form of the work, a series of movements
for soloists and ensemble, harks back to baroque usage. This is no cut
down choral work, the movements consist of overlapping solo sections
forming a sequence of solos, duos and trios.
On the evidence of this disc, Sigurbjörnsson has
quite a distinctive voice. The mass is scored for three soloists and
a chamber ensemble which includes harpsichord. The music is essentially
diatonic without ever seeming simplistic, no mean feat in this stylistically
pluralist age. The ensemble has a distinctly Stravinskian neo-classical
timbre but the overlaying vocal lines are rather more melodic.
A clue to the way into the work is possibly the final
movement, the Epilogue - Beata nobis gaudia. This is an orchestration
of his arrangement of a latin hymn, which comes from the same book as
the text of the Credo. The plainchant tune, simply harmonised for the
three soloists, lies easily over the spiky orchestral accompaniment.
It points the way, quite significantly, to the other movements.
The work opens quite unassumingly, with the soloists
singing in Icelandic. From a solo bass with harpsichord, voices are
added and the occasional obbligato instrument. The Introit gradually
develops and the textures thicken. The harpsichord, providing a series
of ostinatos, is a constant, highly audible factor in the unusual instrumental
textures. The final section of the movement is almost a choral for the
three soloists, accompanied by the busy, spiky orchestra. This movement
is followed by a short ceremonial Praeludium; there are three of these
short movements punctuating the piece.
The Kyrie reverts to Latin and the remainder of the
mass is sung in this language. Starting with a gentle rocking orchestral
motif, the Kyrie develops into a lyrical duet for the tenor and bass
only to be interrupted by the ravishingly pure soprano solo in the Christe.
The opening material of the Kyrie returns but counter-pointed with a
trombone this time, only for Sigurbjörnsson to spring a surprise
as the Christe returns again and we close with a glorious Soprano solo.
The Gloria starts with the orchestra at its most neo-classical
Stravinskian in a march-like rhythm, but the composer surprises us by
giving the opening words to the soprano soloist. The opening march-like
material is used as punctuation throughout the movement. From calm beginnings,
the movement builds until tension is released with a plaintive tenor
solo on the words 'miserere nobis'. Then Sigurbjörnsson springs
another surprise as the 'Laudamus te' section returns before the gradual
build up to the end of the movement, when the final 'Cum Sancto Spirito'
is repeated as a quiet coda.
A contrapuntal harpsichord Praeludium leads to the
short sequence, Lux illuxit, which is dominated by the tenor and bass's
haunting hypnotic repetition of the words 'Lux illuxit'/'Lux illustris'.
The Credo opens with held wind chords over repeated tuned percussion
notes and this throbbing percussion threads its way throughout this
movement. The three soloists chant the words in near rhythmic unison,
subtle differences in rhythm serving to give the impression of three
individuals voicing their thoughts. This is a remarkably meditative
movement despite the quite tough musical material. The Sanctus, in triple
time, is both celebratory and joyful. The Agnus Dei opens with the spare
textures of a single voice with occasional instrumental support. The
vocal line at this point is very redolent of plainchant - a link with
the final movement.
The disc comes attractively packaged, with a very striking
image from an Icelandic 18th century anthology of hymns.
The record label, Smekkleysa, translates as Bad Taste and their output
seems to cover a whole variety of musical genres from classical through
to experimental rock and Björk.
The recording, though admirably clear, sounds rather
studio bound. I can understand the desire to present the music with
as much clarity as possible, but I would rather have liked to hear the
work with rather more space around it. Could we not have had it recorded
in the venue for which is was written?
I enjoyed this music immensely. The composer has gone
to some care to make his piece redolent of the particular time and place
of commissioning and performance. That this place, the church at Skalholt,
is such a mixture of old and new colours the music. While writing music
which is essentially tonal, Sigurbjörnsson has created a language
which retains the listeners’ interest, never talking down to them but
never leaving them behind. I am unfamiliar with the remainder of Sigurbjörnsson's
oeuvre, so I do not know whether this lovely piece represents a seam
which he is mining, or a one-off dead-end created specially for the
occasion. But whichever it is, the piece and this confident performance
are both highly recommendable.