Anna THORVALDSDOTTIR (b.1977)
Rhzōma
Hrm, for chamber orchestra (2010) [8:03]
Hidden, for percussionist on grand piano (2009) [14:18]
Dreaming, for orchestra (2008) [17:25]
Streaming Arhythmia, for chamber orchestra (2007) [19:32]
John DeHart (piano interior)
CAPUT Ensemble
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Bjarnason
rec. Gurarkirkja, Reykjavk; Hsklab, Reykjavk (Dreaming); Warren Music Studios, San Diego (Hidden). No dates given. DDD
INNOVA 810 [59:19]
 
This is the debut monograph of Icelandic composer Anna orvaldsdttir (anglicised in most non-Icelandic contexts as Thorvaldsdottir, or Thorvalds for short). She is half a generation younger than Bjrk Gumundsdttir - plain 'Bjrk' in pop parlance - and writes music a thousand times more interesting whilst being subject of approximately one millionth of the hype - no sign of the Brodsky Quartet on this CD.
 
Hrm, Dreaming and Streaming Arhythmia are the key works. The five movements of Hidden, for piano played as a percussion instrument, are - interestingly or annoyingly, according to taste - split up and wrapped around these three, the reason for which is not explained in the notes.
 
Dreaming is the first of two minor masterpieces, a sprawling and deeply atmospheric canvas washed over by elemental waves of sound swishing enigmatically over prolonged or static bass chords. The stark open spaces and brooding skies evoked are Icelandic, no doubt, but may be familiar to townspeople too from their most unsettling, disorienting of dreams. Streaming Arhythmia is the second, scaling down the forces to create a more intimate space, but the sounds, ideas and moods are broadly similar to those of Dreaming, its greater debt to modernism albeit of more constrained appeal.
 
According to the notes, Hrm refers to "the gradual growth of ice crystals, a notion paralleled in this piece not only by the frosty shimmer of individual sounds, but also in the ways these sounds cling together: as clusters of activity outlining moments of greater structural importance and as threads of memory echoing throughout the work's duration." That does not really give any unequivocal indication as to what the music sounds like, but for all three orchestral works it might be argued that a fondness for Penderecki or Schnittke - with elements from the different styles these composers went through - would put the would-be listener at a significant advantage, at least to begin with.
 
And yet, by the third listen-through, at least with headphones, what seemed like tundra bleakness or black smoke begins to turn warmer and lighter. This is subtle, rich, atmospheric, meditative - almost transcendental - music of uncommon beauty, predominantly piano and slow-moving, that does not yield its abundant, elaborate secrets to a first audition - and never will to a drive-by ear.
 
Hidden, despite its different forces, is another overwhelmingly quiet, mysterious piece. This is not a 'prepared' piano, by the way: the soloist-cum-contortionist mainly plays - strums, plucks, rubs - the always undampened strings directly, with occasional resort to the soundboard and frame for extra effects. It is more rewarding to listen to all the movements of this unusual work in succession, which is simply a matter of programming the CD player/software.
 
The case is of the digipak type, with an alt-trendy kind of recycled look about it. The back of the booklet is glued onto the card and continues the recycled theme. There are various faux-naive arty scrawlings and jottings all over the place, which may appeal to some - all in all, the CD case looks like something fans of Bjrk might go for, and the suspicion of a marketing ploy is enhanced by a complete lack of indication as to what kind of music this is, what the forces are, who the performers are, until the peruser has opened the case and thumbed right through the booklet. The notes are interesting, in any case, and surprisingly modest.
 
With intense, persuasive performances all round, this is a disc offering unusual but ultimately substantial reward for the more adventurous listener.
 
Byzantion
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
 
Subtle, rich, atmospheric, meditative - almost transcendental - music of uncommon beauty.