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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett