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