Jon LEIFS (1899-1968) Complete Songs
Finnur Bjarnason (tenor) Örn Magnússon (piano)
rec. Salurinn, Kopavagur Concert Hall, Iceland, December 2000-January 2001 BIS BIS-2170 SACD [80.28]
This CD will not produce paroxysms of laughter but there is much here to enjoy and to contemplate. BIS’s commitment to the man who can still be regarded as Iceland’s greatest composer slowly continues having been started over twenty years ago with orchestral works like The Saga Symphony. Radio 3 even had Leifs as its Composer of the Week in the summer of 2105. That said, I should point out that this disc originally came out in 2001 on the Smekkleysa label
(see below). Despite the availability of his music Leifs is not a comfortable figure and his unique soundworld can become too ‘samey’ if one is over-exposed to it. To a certain extent then a little Leifs can go a long way.
While this latest instalment is by no means a good place to begin your Leifs studies it’s quite clear that writing songs was important to him throughout his life. Indeed it was often pivotal to his expressive needs. I decided to track the disc so I could listen to the songs in chronological order.
The excitement - or the problem - with Leifs’ harmonic language is that it is almost entirely based on the perfect fifth and on juxtaposed, unrelated chords. This has the effect of sometimes anchoring the tonality. Also it enables him to superimpose harmonies and move freely around what ultimately becomes a modal language. This comes from his study of, and his recorded collection of, Icelandic folk songs and melodies. It is very difficult to tell the difference between a Leifs melody and a traditional one.
In the Three Songs Op. 4 the harmonies are often just a sequence of fifths. In the first of the Op. 18b Verses from the Edda he plays another trick that involves a string of unresolved dissonances, mainly 7ths and 9ths. One is reminded that the Edda’s description of the beginning of the world was set by Leifs in his vast Oratorio Edda also recorded by Bis on SACD1350.
Of those tunes he collected comes the Two Icelandic Folksongs and the Three Icelandic Hymns. Compare them with, say the Love Verses from the Edda and you will see how the one has informed the other to a very strong extent.
More importantly however one can see how the often-tragic events of Leifs' life are reflected in his songs and chosen texts. For example two sets entitled Songs from the Saga Symphony and the terse and majestic Three Songs from Icelandic Sagas deal in brutal harmony and word with some of the great saga heroes like Egil Skallagrimsson. Leifs was associating himself with those heroes whilst he and his countrymen heroically fought against the Nazis both psychologically and in reality. Leifs underwent a traumatic divorce resulting in his having charge of two of his children, one, his daughter Lif accidentally drowned. His despair can be heard in the song Torrek which is dedicated to his daughter’s memory with a text taken from the Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson after he also lost his children.
Finnur Bjarnason has many colours to his voice and this adds constant interest. His dynamic contrasts from whispers to passionate, almost frightening, outbursts enable this vocal shading and characterisation to emerge strongly. That said, when he is singing forte or stronger, especially in the highest register, his vibrato, for this listener anyway, is too dominant. These songs are partnerships and there is no doubt that Örn Magnússon’s contribution should not be overlooked. The piano parts can be much harder to control than might at first be thought. Just listen to the middle song – Dance of the Spectres from the Op. 23 set. The piano part can steam-roll its way through the songs only suddenly to become the reflective partner to enable a powerful lyricism to shine through. One needs therefore to be one hundred per cent stylistically attuned to the music’s constantly fluctuation needs.
If you are a Leifs convert then this disc will be of much interest and it fills a significant gap in the catalogue of this unique twentieth century voice. All the texts are given and are well translated by various authors. The introductory essay by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson is part of a thick and interesting booklet. As ever, all the documentation is beautifully presented.