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Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Geysir, Op.51 (1961)
Trilogia piccola, Op.1 (1919-24)
Trois peintures abstraites, Op.44 (1955)
Icelandic Folk Dances, Op.11 (1929-31)
Overture to ‘Loftr’. Op.10 (1927)
Consolation, Intermezzo for strings, Op.66 (1968)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Recorded at Hallgrim’s Church, Reykjavik, Iceland 19-21 June, 1996
BIS CD 830 [55’35]

This is an excellent example of a first-rate composer being put on the musical map by a record company. Once again the medium of the record comes to our rescue, and we are able to sample the delights of an Icelandic composer who would surely never feature in a mainstream concert programme, however unfair that may seem.

And once you sample this disc, it really will seem unfair that the public is denied such music. There is a real stamp of originality here. Leifs left behind the central Europe of the Nazis and sought his inspiration from the folklore and natural beauty of his native country. The results are often of their time – a reliance on rhythm, flirtation with atonality, huge orchestral tuttis that are alarmingly loud – but there is an unmistakable individuality lurking underneath. The opening item is as good an example as any. Geysir is described in the booklet as ‘a stupendous tonal picture’ and is as evocative of man’s helplessness in the face of nature as anything in Sibelius. Percussion are well to the fore here, and the volcanic rumblings of the massive orchestral forces are impressive.

Most of the other works here are imbued with a folk-ish modality, and though the harmonic language never strays too far from home, Leifs uses his resources with flair and ingenuity. I particularly like the Icelandic Folk Dances, where simplicity never descends into bathos, and the spirit of Mahler’s wunderhorn is never far away. It became Leifs’ most performed work, understandable but unfortunate for the rest of his output. The disc finishes as powerfully as it starts, but for very different reasons. The Consolation for strings was written as Leifs lay in a Reykjavik hospital dying of lung cancer. Like many composers before and since, staring death in the face produced profound results, and this 6-minute meditation is as poignant as anything I know. As with the rest of the disc, it gets a well-nigh perfect reading from Vänskä and his orchestra, with supple string playing, depth of tone and pacing that is concentrated but allows the music to breathe.

As usual with BIS, the recording is stunningly wide-ranging and full-bodied, with detail and weight in equal measure. Their disc of Leifs’ Saga Symphony has become something of a cult classic, and this valuable 30th anniversary reissue deserves the same success.

see also review by Rob Barnett

Tony Haywood

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