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Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Scherzo concreto Op.58 [4:10]
Quintet Op.50 [15:25]
Variazioni pastorale Op.8 [12:32]
Elegies Op.35 [22:08]
Thórunn Gudmundsdóttir (mezzo); Rut Ingólfsdóttir (violin)
Male-voice choir
Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra/Bernhardur Wilkinson
rec. Vioistaoa Church, Hafnarfjörour and Langholt Church, Reykjavík, Iceland, 2002/05
Reissued and re-mastered from recordings previously released on the Smekkleysa label
BIS BIS-2070 [55:18]

Having purchased as much Leifs as I could over many years, I assumed I probably had all his major pieces in my collection. I am pleased to be wrong: the Elegies (Erfiljóð) is as powerful and original a work as one could wish to find. It is not an aural challenge as are some of his works. Playing it does not threaten destruction of one's loudspeakers, as does Hekla. It is simply a deeply felt memorial to his precious daughter Líf who drowned at the age of 18. This event shattered Leifs. Composition was his only means of trying to come to grips with the event. Elegies is scored for a male chorus of divided tenors and divided basses, plus a mezzo-soprano soloist and a solo violin. It has three parts: Grief, Dance of Sorrow and The Sea Poem. Grief is a short setting of a poem about loss, reflecting on the awfulness of life without her; the Dance of Sorrow is a series of aphorisms and short verses on death and loss; the final Sea Poem is much the longest movement, again setting aphorisms and short verses but this time chosen to describe Líf's drowning. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that it is difficult to listen to such sad music and words, but as with more famous music of tragic loss, Mahler's 9th Symphony for example, it is rewarding. Elegies lasts a mere 22 minutes but punches well above its musical weight.

The rest of the disc is interesting for the Leifs enthusiast, filling, as it does, gaps in his output. There is very little chamber music and not much vocal music in his catalogue. The Scherzo concreto written in 1964 is obviously an experiment, his only one, in serial composition and could perhaps be mistaken for Stravinsky in his later manner, but was apparently influenced by the American composer Gunther Schuller. It is full of Leif's characteristic parallel fifths and has an intriguing subtitle indicating it is written for "10 instruments and 7 persons". The seven persons have descriptive names; the Buffoon, the Melancholic, the Boor, the Naive, the Leader, the Deceitful and the Lover. Since it is only four minutes long is has no difficulty holding the attention. The Quintet is more substantial and very powerful with the composer getting some interesting sounds from his odd group of instruments: flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, viola and cello. It is a mature work displaying the same brooding feeling as the huge orchestral nature pieces on which his fame, such as it is, rests. The Variations are on a theme by Beethoven. They are all very short, ten variations in 12 minutes, but holds the attention.

All followers of twentieth century music will find the Elegies in particular, worth hearing and perhaps they will then tackle the more forbidding orchestral output. Make no mistake, Jón Leifs is a musical voice to be reckoned with. The recordings are clean and realistic.

Dave Billinge


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