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Iceland – Piano Music by Icelandic Composers
Ţorkell SIGURBJÖRNSSON (b 1938)
Hans–Variationen (1979) [12:21]
Jóhann G JÓHANNSSON (b 1947)
Ég er ađ tala um Ţig [5:07]  
Atli INGÓLFSSON (b 1962)
….ma la melodia (2000) [4:29]
Haukur TÓMASSON (b 1960)
Brotnir Hljómar (2003) [7:14]
Atli Heimir SVEINSSON (b 1938)
Óđur Steinsins Nr.IV [3:58]
Af hreinu hjarta [2:38]
Albumblatt an Susanne Kessel [1:38]
Victor URBANCIC (1903–1958)
Caprices Mignons über ein Kinderlied (1922) [7:41]
Jórunn VIĐAR (b 1918)
Meditationen über islandische Volksthemen (nos.1 & 4) [5:20]
Hafliđi HALLGRIMSSON (b 1941)
Lullaby on a Winters’ Night (1985) [3:04]
Páll ISOLFSSON (1893–1974)
Impromptu [2:44]
Sveinbjörn SVEINBJÖRNSSON (1847 – 1927)
Vikivaki [2:26]
Árni EGILSSON (b 1939)
Borealis (2007) [5:24]
Jön LEIFS (1899–1968)
Rimnadanslög, op.11/1 [3:06]
Rimnadanslög, op.11/2 [2:44]
Rimnadanslög, op.11/3 [1:57]
BJÖRK (b 1965) and Leon MILO (b 1956)
I Miss You (transcription for piano and electronics) [4:43]
Susanne Kessel (piano)
rec. 2–9 April 2007, Deutschlandrundfunk Kammermusiksaal
OEHMS CLASSICS OC813 [76:41] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


My first thought, after reading the contents of this fascinating disk, is to lament the omission of three major figures in Icelandic music – Mist
Ţorkelsdóttir, Karólína Eiríksdóttir and Snorri Sigfús Birgisson. I would willingly have done without the Urbancic piece in favour of these three for it is of much less interest than the rest of the programme. But I should be happy with this astonishing collection of miniatures from a country which, although it can boast a rich musical tradition, and is teeming with composers, still hasn’t been recognised on the international musical map. 

This collection covers over fifty years of Icelandic composition – although to be fair, Urbancic was Viennese-born and his work was written before he and his family left Vienna, due to the political situation in the 1930s, and moved to Iceland where he had been offered a teaching post. His Caprices Mignons über ein Kinderlied is a set of variations on the duet Brüderlein komm tanz mit mir, from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. In its seven minute span it varies the theme in a variety of ways, with more than an hint of the Viennese flavour you often find in Korngold’s music. 

Ţorkell Sigurbjörnsson was the first Icelandic composer whose music I ever heard – the String Quartet, played by the Saulesco Quartet on a Scandinavian EMI LP, CSDS 1088,issued in 1968. It’s a strong piece and very typical of his work. The Hans–Variationen was written for pianist Hans Pálsson and it’s a lengthy and serious piece of work. It’s also not an easy listen. Sigurbjörnsson – in Iceland everyone is referred to by their first name, even the telephone directory has everyone listed by first name, but here I shall refer to the composers by their last names as is common elsewhere – exploits the whole range of the keyboard and creates a fascinating tapestry of sound as the music gradually unfolds. 

In 1988 Jóhann G Jóhannsson won an Icelandic gold record for his song Help Them and his talents in the popular music field have made him well known is certain circles. Ég er ađ tala um Ţig is a lovely melody, simply harmonised.

 

Atli Ingólfsson’s …ma la melodia is quite unlike anything I have heard from this composer – it’s straight forward, clean cut and very virtuosic, in a 19th century way. If you’ve heard Orchestra B (2003) or Radioflakes (2003) this piece will come as a shock – but a very pleasant one.

 

Haukur Tómasson recently won recognition with his opera Gudrun´s Fourth Song which won the Nordic Council Music Prize 2004 for its composer and was performed on the opening day of the Bĺstad music festival in Swedish in 2005.  Brotnir Hljómar spends its short duration breaking up chords and ruminating round them. He builds an imposing climax two thirds of the way through the piece and the quiet coda is most impressive.

Atli Heimir Sveinsson is the same age as Sigurbjörnsson and has an impressive list of works to his name – his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, which were premiered in 2006 and 2008, are well worth investigation. The first of these three miniatures starts as if quoting the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Concerto, but soon goes off on its own way, quiet and meditative. Af hreinu hjarta is a sad waltz, with a slight feel of Brahms at the start (!) before bursting into a little honky–tonk piano, and ending very abruptly. Albumblatt an Susanne Kessel is a repeated note study, loud and insistent. 

Jórunn Viđar is known for her many songs and choral works which are superbly crafted and very approachable. Her Four Meditations on Icelandic Folk Themes (of which we are given the first and last) are attractive arrangements of their source material, easily approachable for the listener and very appealing.

 

Hafliđi Hallgrimsson is well known as a cellist – he was principal cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for some years until, in 1993, he put down his cello to concentrate entirely on composition. He studied with Alan Bush and Peter Maxwell Davies but you’d be hard pressed to tell that from his work which is very lyrical and rich in texture. Lullaby on a Winters’ Night is a graceful nocturne. 

Páll Isolfsson’s Impromptu is a romantic piece with a whiff of the late romantic virtuoso pianist composers and Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson’s Vikivaki moves in the same sound world but there’s more of a Sibelian insistence about it – the music urgently pushing forwards. 

With Árni Egilsson’s Borealis we’re with a composer who means serious business. Despite its short duration, Borealis is a big piece. After a demonstrative opening, a calmer, more sustained, section gives respite but the opening returns, as does its foil. Loud or quiet, this is disturbing music, uneasy, but hypnotic. 

Jön Leifs is seen as the father of Icelandic composition.  He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, graduating in 1921 and becoming a successful conductor in Germany. Because he married Annie Riethof, a Jewish pianist, he and his family were harrassed by the Nazis. He returned to Iceland in 1945, after escaping to Sweden the previous year. Rimnadanslög (Icelandic Dances) is a set of piano pieces which will recall Geirr Tveitt’s Volksmelodien aus Hardanger (Folk Tunes from Hardanger) for they have the same earthy simplicity about them. 

To end, an arrangement of Björk’s I Miss You by Leon Milo. At times there are what can only be called reminiscences of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint in the electronic realization.

 

I hope that I’ve been able to give some idea of the variety and quality of the music on this very interesting and exciting CD. For anyone who has never heard any music by an Icelandic composer, this would be as good a place as any to start for it will introduce you to a lot of different styles of composition, and many different, and very interesting,  voices. Susanne Kessel is a fine advocate for this music and with a recording as good as this it’s not to be missed. The notes are helpful to an extent but none of the titles are given in English! To know the title of a piece is always helpful in getting to grips with music which is new to the listener.
 
Bob Briggs
 
see also Review by Rob Barnett
 




 


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