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
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.
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.
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
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.