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Jon LEIFS (1899-1968)
Works for Voices and Orchestra
Viking's Answer - Intermezzo for wind ensemble, percussion, violas and double basses Op. 54 (1962) [3:47]
The Lay of Helgi the Hundingslayer for alto, bass and small orchestra Op. 61 (1964) [8:32]
Groa's Spell for alto, tenor and orchestra Op. 62 [18:38]
Jonas Hallgrimsson - in memoriam for mixed choir and orchestra Op. 48 (1961) [6:48]
Spring Song for mixed choir and orchestra Op. 46 [4:48]
Landfall - Overture for male chorus and orchestra Op. 41 (1945) [9:50]
Iceland Cantata for mixed choir and orchestra Op. 13 (1930) [19:07]
Gudrun Edda Gunarsdottir (alto)
Finnur Bjarnason (ten)
Olafur Sigurdarson (bass)
Hallgrimskirkja Motet Choir and Schola Cantoruum/Hordur Askelsson
Frostbraedur Male Choir/Arni Hardarson
Karnesskoli boys's choir/Dorunn Bjornsdottir
Iceland SO/Hermann Baumer
BIS BIS-CD-1080 [73:15]


If you are looking for stark music from a strange planet yet turning its back on once-fashionable 20th century 'modernity', look no further. This is music for the open-minded listener but with a palate jaded by undue familiarity. The receptive hearer must not be allergic to terse expression. The Leifs ‘signature’ is as unmistakable as that of Martinů, Vaughan Williams or Copland; different of course but instantly identifiable.

All the words are printed, both in the original Icelandic and in English translation. The style is one of heroic story-telling with a Luonnotar delicacy at one moment and a harsh stone-cracking angularity at the next.

Leifs' life has been covered in other MusicWeb reviews so we'll avoid the details. His return to Iceland in 1945 after more than a decade in Nazi Germany was greeted with controversy. The Landfall Overture is built around the composer's experience of seeing Iceland emerge from the mists on that return voyage. It is mysterious, the orchestration carefully calculated, miasmic, pregnant (like the pppp episodes in The Firebird) and finally sloggingly cannonading and bell-assaulted.

Spring Song is a taciturn celebratory piece with punched grace, punctuated with delicacy and a spat-out percussive rattle. The Jonas Hallgrimsson - in memoriam is monumental, elbows out, strutting in a slightly uncoordinated way, bass-emphatic and volatile. This is ungracious music but not at all rebarbative.

Viking's Answer is a grim, thuddingly heroic, piece where harshness is part of the warp and woof of the idiom. The brass in their taciturn defiance recall Roy Harris in serious symphonic mode (Symphonies 3 and 7). The music may be harsh but it is not dissonant in any academic way. The violence portrayed through the scoring for wind-band including four saxophones and violas is direct. There are no vocal parts here.

The Lay of Helgi has roles for bass and alto. Once again the vocal and instrumental lines are broken down before they can fly independently. What is unusual is the slippery slaloming writing for strings at 7.02 onwards - fascinating. The work was completed in Helsinki in 1964 within days of the hostile reaction to the premiere of his Hekla at the Great Hall of Helsinki University.

Groa's Spell again demonstrate that Leifs genius took him towards stern declamation rather than ingratiating melody. Groa is the dead mother of Svipdagr who visits her grave. Having risen from the dead Groa then proceeds to call down beneficent spells on her son in his quest for a wife. Stark, unembellished ideas flail and spit, intone and mutter (there is a great deal of quiet music), rage and storm. It may be too bereft of ornament or unleashed melody to hold the attention fully but like all Leifs it is so strange it holds the listener fascinated.

The early Iceland Cantata is in seven movements. It was performed in part in Greifwald in Germany in 1930. It was only in 1959 that the work was performed complete, nine years before Leifs' death. The choral writing has a gentleness that became much rarer in his later music. There is a great deal of diaphanous delicate singing from the choir. However the allegro furioso penultimate movement has his explosive fulminating signature rhythms and volcanic dies irae violence. The final andante is punctuated with 'dinks' from the hammer and anvil, stabbing impacts and sepulchral bell noises. All ends in a glimmering pristine peace.

With all of this Eddic material I do hope that someone is setting about realising Leifs' three-part Edda oratorio left incomplete on his death.

Arni Heimir Ingolfsson's notes fill in the detail but assume that there is no need for basic biographical background. Full Icelandic texts and translations are given.

This is not for the first-time Leifs explorer (for that the other Bis and Iceland Music Information Centre CDs and one Chandos CD are more suited). Confirmed Leifs fans needing a further 'fix' of his unrepentantly odd music need look no further.

Rob Barnett

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