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Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Complete Songs

Memorial Songs on the Death of Jónas Hallgrímsson op. 45 (1958) (3)
Songs from the Saga Symphony op. 25 (1941) (3)
Two Icelandic Folk-Songs Op. 19b (1934-35) (2)
Two Songs Op. 18a (1931-33) (2)
Stand, House of Stone Op. 47a (1958)
Two Songs Op. 14 (1929-30)
Three Songs from Icelandic Sagas Op. 24 (1941)
Memory-land Op. 27 No. 3 (1927-28)
Love Verses from the Edda Op. 18b (1931-32)
Old Scaldic Verses from Iceland (1944-45) (3)
Torrek Op. 33a (1947)
Finnur Bjarnason (tenor)
Örn Magnússon (piano)
rec. Salurrin, Kópavogur, Dec 2000, Jan 2001, Sept 2001
SMEKKLEYSA SMK 20 [2CDs: 80.46]

This Icelandic Music Centre-sponsored set presents an unusual dimension to a composer we associate with angular and volcanic orchestral statements.

The two discs make available a treasury of songs set and sung in Icelandic. They are tragic, restive, angry, volatile, imploring and generally not often in touch with the more yielding emotions. This set will force another reassessment of Iceland's most famous composer.

The two discs play for circa forty minutes each. The Op. 45 Memorial Songs (Hallgrimsson) tend towards the darker dissonances and melodic contours of the orchestral works as does Stand House of Stone Op. 47 a (CD1 tr.14). The last of the three is all prayer and pleading invocation. The Op. 25 Saga Symphony Songs are brutally heroic, broad-chested magnificence with rough-cut strength to the fore. The violent stone mace blows of Thormodur's Death (tr.6 CD1) are startlingly vicious as also in Fjord of a Thousand Islands (tr.8 CD1). The Op. 24 Three Songs from the Icelandic Sagas are also declamatory - much as Alan Bush's Voices of the Prophets - sometimes thunderously so. These songs acted as character sketches for the Saga Symphony (Bis). The Icelandic Folk songs of Op. 19b are, in the case of Slumber Dearest Child of Mine (tr.7 CD1) and Good Night (tr.9 CD1), enigmatically both hopeless and comforting. The named folk settings owe much to his collecting expeditions to Iceland between 1926 and 1934. As early as 1924 Leifs four-square defiant awkward-cussedness is in evidence in the laconic and often protesting songs of Three verses from Havamal. The Pierrot shadow garden ambience of the Two Songs Op. 14a can be cut with a knife. Softer emotions emerge for Verse in the Op. 23 set (CD2 tr.4). But a sinister ombrageous atmosphere is pervasive in Dance of the Spectres Op. 23 (CD2 tr.5). The sort of sturdily patriotic effusiveness we find in the songs of Alfvén and Peterson-Berger can be heard in Memory-Land (tr.7 CD2) sung here with stentorian fervour. Then, in complete contrast, comes Long is one Night, a starrily magical love song from Op. 18b (CD2 tr. 8). The second of the two love songs (Op18b No. 2 at tr.9 CD2) is more closely connected to Leifs’ trademark declamatory stream. The early Op. 12a hymns, playing to the more devotional side, are invocatory and pleading and it is only in the last one, Arise my soul, that the angular side of Leifs style colours the music. The last song on CD2 is Torrek, Op. 33a from 1947. This is a setting of an episode from Egil's Saga. It is uncompromising, defiant and sulphurous and has all the unpredictable volatility of a geysir though ending exhausted, submissive.

The songs are opulently spread across two CDs. This was an unnecessary extravagance. There are plenty of examples of discs that exceed the 80 minute playing time 'barrier'.

The two discs are housed in a robust double flap card case. The indispensable essay by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson is in Icelandic and English. The texts are given in the sung Icelandic with parallel English translations.

Many of these are world premiere recordings.

Rob Barnett


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