Despite a population of only 500,000, Iceland
has produced at least two composers who have found their way
beyond local recognition: Jon Leifs (1899-1968) and Haflidi
Hallgrimsson (b.1941). That is, if you don’t count pop cult
idol Björk. There is absolutely no connection between the volcanic
music of the geysers that we have come to know from Leifs, and
the introspective landscapes of basalt and sea, that mark the
musical world of Hallgrimsson. Björk seems to hover somewhere
Haflidi was born on the northern shore of Iceland,
but soon left for Europe to study the cello in Rome at the Accademia
Santa Cecilia, and in London at the Royal Academy of Music.
In 1967 he added composition to his studies, with Dr. Alan Bush
and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Upon leaving the Academy, he became
Principal Cellist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and has
lived in Scotland ever since.
In 1983 he left his position at the SCO to become
a full-time composer, and during the next quarter century, has
been slowly building a name for himself. He has had several
commissions from leading orchestras in both Britain and abroad,
and of course Iceland.
Hallgrimsson is an accomplished painter, and
performed one of his first compositions, Solitaire, written
for his own instrument, surrounded by his own drawings and paintings.
His music shows sensitivity for line, shape and color, and a
great affinity with stringed instruments. His first major success,
Poemi for violin and string orchestra, was the first
in a line of similar compositions, followed by Rima for
soprano, Herma for cello, and Ombra for viola,
all accompanied by string orchestra.
Herma, the second piece on this CD, was
written for Hallgrimsson’s successor at the SCO, William Conway,
and first performed by him with the SCO and Ivor Bolton in 1995.
The title is an old Icelandic word, now most commonly found
in a phrase meaning: ‘to repeat someone’s words’. There is a
strong connotation with speech, and the solo part seems written
like a long unbroken monologue. The 22 orchestra members occasionally
engage in imitation or dialogue, or else provide background
material which is built in a free aleatoric fashion, much in
the way as devised by Witold Lutosławski. Save for the
occasional outburst, this music sings slowly and quietly, until
the last segment where an almost Bartókian liveliness brings
the piece to a close.
The CD opens with the Cello Concerto, written
in response to a joint commission from the Oslo Philharmonic,
the Iceland Symphony and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and
dedicated to Truls Mørk, who gave the first performance at the
Ultima Festival in Oslo in October 2003. With this evocative
score we enter a sound-world, vaguely reminiscent of the late
works of Alban Berg. This is largely attributable to the instrumental
color, but certainly not to the musical language, which remains
totally unique. The composer says that as he worked, a simple
Berceuse by Grieg, which he had played on the cello in
his childhood ‘subtly crept its way into the concerto’. He eventually
came to realize that he was in a sense ‘writing a large-scale
lullaby, dreaming strange dreams, soothing my mind while fully
awake’. The piece begins and ends in this very dreamlike state,
with the cello singing above slowly pulsing bass notes, until,
at the very end, the cello sinks to ever deeper low notes until
it finds its final resting place on a sustained low C – like
the sun sinking into the Nordic sea.
It goes without saying that the performance here
by Truls Mørk, who has been a lifelong champion of Haflidi Hallgrimsson,
is a towering achievement in which every single detail has been
worked out carefully. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has performed
a large part of this composer’s music on a regular basis, and
commits itself wholeheartedly, with the wonderfully sympathetic
John Storgårds at the helm. The recording was made in the presence
of the composer. Annotations are lucid and the sound is spectacular.
This review may also be seen at www.opusklassiek.nl