In the early days of CDs I picked up a recording (Merlin MRFD
88101) of various chamber works by the Icelander Haflidi Hallgrimsson
most of which featured either the cello, with the composer as
performer, or a string group. The music did not have much appeal
for me so it has hardly been played.
The composer was/is a professional cellist having
played in Scotland with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - featured
here - until 1983 and freelance, so it’s hardly surprising
that the instrument features with significance in his quite
extensive output. When this new disc was announced however
I was keen to review it and re-acquaint myself with the composer.
I had not previously come across any of his orchestral works.
After graduating at the Music School in Reykjavik in 1962 Hallgrimsson
continued his studies first in Italy and then at
the Royal Academy in London. Amongst his
teachers have been Alan Bush and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
and he has performed with the Mondrian Trio and the Haydn
Trio. He has won various composition awards, for example the
Wieniawski Prize in 1985.
When listening to these two works Maxwell Davies’
influence on Hallgrimsson can sometimes be heard in terms
of texture. I find that especially PMD’s Cello Concerto which
was his second Strathclyde Concerto (1988) is near to Hallgrimsson’s
language. Both composers are from the ‘frozen north’ and certain
sounds are typical of that landscape. Hallgrimsson has not
lived in Iceland for some time. He is now resident in Scotland. I can feel
the wide open frozen vistas very immediately here as I can
in Maxwell Davies although he is a little less extreme.
It’s interesting, by the by, that Ondine have been
sponsored for this recording both by the Scottish Arts Council
and by the Icelandic Ministry of Education.
Both works are of about the same length and each
is in one unstoppable movement divided into contrasting sections.
The Cello Concerto is basically slow and atmospheric, dark-hued
and brooding with just a brief, windy Scherzando three parts
of the way through. There is a ghost lurking in the shape
of a Grieg Berceuse, often alluded to. The cello is hardly
silent and has an evocative cadenza accompanied mostly by
timpani but also by snare drum. The orchestra plays on its
own hardly at all. This is something of a drawback aurally
as the sound-world can appear a little unrelenting. The coda
is a magical phasing out of Hallgrimson into the C major of
the Grieg bass lines - very subtle and highly original.
Herma which is effectively the
composer’s First Cello Concerto is scored for solo cello and
22 strings, often divided. It was written for William Conway
who took over Hallgrimsson’s position in the Scottish Chamber
Orchestra. The title is derived from an Icelandic word which
now means “to repeat or to imitate somebody’s words” to quote
the excellent booklet notes by Anthony Burton. This means
that the cello part “resembles an unbroken monologue, sometimes
declamatory but mostly lyrical”. In other words the soloist
is in charge and plays practically without a stop. Again the
mood is dark and brooding. There is a cadenza, accompanied,
magically, in part by harmonics on the string orchestra. Only
after twelve minutes has elapsed does a fast section break
out. It’s soon quelled but returns almost ten minutes later
and attempts to fight on to the end. There is no name for
the kind of plan or form found in this work. It feeds upon
itself. Occasionally an idea lingers as for example the still
music about five minutes before the end. On the other hand
it might discover another motif and develop that until it
burns itself out. Although I find this a slightly less impressive
achievement than the Concerto, this remains a work worth getting
Now that he is no longer playing professionally
the composer must feel overjoyed that he has found a cellist
in Truls Mørk who is so in tune with his music. He seems to
know when to project and when to accompany. The Scottish Orchestra
is superb and the conducting of John Storgårds, is careful,
affectionate and thorough. The recording with its beautiful
church acoustic of the historic Greyfriars Kirk is clear and
well balanced. No composer could want for better.
see also Review
by Siebe Riedstra