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Hugi GUDMUNDSSON (b.1977)
Calm of the deep
To this my thoughts turn all my days (2000) [4.38]
Palindrome (2012) [2.35]
Rest (2009) [3.29]
O sing, my soul (2010) [3.35]
The blessed birth of our Lord (2005) [4.09]
Choral (2003) [3.21]
Iceland’s clock (2012) [4.49]
The shapen world (1999) [5.33]
Intermezzos Nos 1-4 (2012) [4.50]
Händelelusive (2009) [11.36]
Hamrahild Choir/Thorgeđur Ingolfsdóttir
Hanna Loftsdóttir (viola da gamba)
Nordic Affect
rec. 2012/13; Háteigskirka; Sundkirken, Copenhagen; National State Radio, Copenhagen

I often think it would be a salutary lesson for modern composers, when they are writing for human voices, actually to try to sing the notes they are writing down in their scores. They would then realise that singers not only have to be able to deliver the notes but also to envision in their minds what the composer has written and then practically move from one sometimes arbitrary pitch to another. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the reason why composers from Schoenberg onwards have resorted to approximate indications of sung pitch in their scores results from their realisation that the demands they are making mentally as well as physically on their performers are simply not practicable – not that their actually notated pitches are always honoured by singers either.

All of this is by way of preface to acknowledging that Hugi Gudmundsson is not a composer who falls into that category. Indeed the booklet notes inform us that he actually sang in the chorus for the first performance of his To this my thoughts turn all my days, a real act of courage when the other singers around him would doubtless have observed with glee the slightest error on his part. Indeed all the choral music on this disc shows clear signs of being the work of a composer who really understands the act of singing, and the needs of singers, from the inside; and the results are very beautiful indeed. Two of the works, O sing my soul and The blessed birth of our Lord, are arrangements of hymns by Ólafur Jónsson (1560-1627), and it is a tribute to Gudmundsson’s absorption of traditional Iceland style that they have a clear affinity to the original compositions on this CD. These include a third Jónsson setting, Choral, about which we are not told anything regarding the circumstances of composition, and which is listed among the works on the composer’s website as a piece including a chamber instrumental accompaniment (here omitted altogether). It forms a fine unit with the two arrangements, however.

The remainder of the choral works here are settings of various Icelandic texts including works by twentieth century poets. The booklet commendably supplies the complete lyrics of these songs, together with translations into English by various hands. The words are often very arresting in their own right, especially Rest to a poem by Snorri Hjartason (1906-86); and the Palindrome and Iceland’s clock, to texts by Thorstein Valdimarsson (1918-77), ingeniously employ the same words in reverse order for the second part of the poem. We are informed in the booklet notes by Arni Heimir Ingolfsson that the music for these settings can be sung both forwards and backwards – quite a compositional tour de force! – and both were composed specifically for this CD. At the other end of the chronological spectrum The shapen world was written when the composer was first-year student at the Reykjavik College of Music, and although the notes admit that the influence of his teacher Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson can be detected there are also clear signs of the composer’s own voice.

The CD also includes the three-movement suite Händelelusive, which was selected for the ICSM festival in 2011 and nominated for their Young Composer’s Award. The work, we are informed, is “based on themes from Handel’s well-known suite Water music, but the material is presented only in a highly fragmentary state.” Indeed, if we had not been told of its origins, I would not have begun to suspect its presence. The music sounds almost like the work of a different composer altogether, much spikier and less mellifluous. Comprehension is not aided by the fact that the suite has been disassembled, with individual movements presented between the various choral pieces, which does not help to provide any sense of unity. Indeed the composer is seemingly aware of this, since he has also provided four Interludes for viola da gamba, also presented between choral tracks, which he explains as “a kind of bridge between the old and the new.” Although both the Handel suite and the new interludes are superbly well played, I can’t help feeling that their presentation in this manner is not ideal.

We are told in the booklet that the Hamrahild choir consists of a combined force of school choirs and older students, and it must be admitted that there is an occasional rawness of sound especially on higher notes which betrays the youth of the individual singers. But they are thoroughly committed to this music, and display great enthusiasm which more than compensates for incidental defects. They are recorded in a lovely resonant acoustic which makes one hope to hear more of them (we are told that they have performed such challenging works as Beethoven’s Ninth and Ravel’s Daphnis, neither of them works which can lightly be tackled by amateur bodies). The presentation of the CD is also excellent; not only texts and translations, but comprehensive notes and biographies in both Icelandic and English. And the whole comes in a well-designed sleeve which looks most attractive in its own right. Rather short measure, but a good advertisement for a highly accessible composer who deserves to receive wider recognition.
Paul Corfield Godfrey



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