This release marks the 90th birthday of the Icelandic composer Jˇn Nordal. He isn’t much known outside his native country and this is the first time I’ve come across his music. He studied piano and composition at the College of Music in Reykjavik with Arni Kristjansson, Jon Thorarinsson and Victor Urbancic. Nordal then went onto ZŘrich to study with Walter Frey and Willy Burkhard, and further consolidated his learning in Copenhagen, Paris and Rome. In 1957 he attended the summer course in Darmstadt. In 1956 he received a prestigious commission to compose a work to commemorate the visit of the King of Denmark, Frederik IX, to Iceland. The result was the Sinfonietta Seriosa, a work heavily indebted to Bartˇk and Hindemith. From 1957 to 1992 he worked as director of the Reykjavik College of Music, teaching piano and composition. The five orchestral works here were written between 1966 and 1982.
The earliest composition is the Adagio for flute, harp, piano and string orchestra penned in 1966. It’s scored for strings alone with the flute, harp and piano fulfilling an obbligato role. It’s the piano that sets the ball rolling, whilst the strings create an atmosphere of awakening and coming to life. The stage set is dark and sombre, against which the solo instruments appear as solitary voices wandering in a lonely landscape. About halfway through Nordal ratchets up the rhetoric, but it’s only short-lived. The work ends in stillness with the solo flute having the final word.
The longest work is Leisla from 1973. Scored for full orchestra, the title refers to '... a state of mind, slightly more conscious than a trance, yet very meditative ...'. It draws its inspiration from the Old Icelandic poem Sˇlarljˇ (Song of the Sun) in which a deceased father advises his son from beyond the grave. Nordal conjures up some impressive, powerful sonorities. The sun is depicted in translucent, intoxicating washes of sound which alternate with more sinister forces. The composer’s imaginative use of percussion adds to the allure.
A year later came Epitafion, an epitaph paying tribute to a close friend of the composer, the cellist Einar Vigf˙sson who had recently died. The elegiac score is grief-laden and tinged with sadness and regret. About five minutes in the music becomes quite menacing, but the overall trajectory is more tranquil.
LangnŠtti (1975), meaning Winter Darkness, is ushered in by fast note-sequences on the piano. There’s some seductive woodwind writing which adds to the attraction, and use is made of ostinato patterns. I find it a very atmospheric piece, the glacial wilderness giving an impression of wide open space, with the celesta sounding like ice-drops melting.
The latest opus, composed in 1982, is Choralis. It was commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich for the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington. Nordal incorporates Liljulag, an Icelandic folksong, into the work and it lingers throughout. The score summons up some powerful forces, and the brilliant orchestral effects certainly pack a punch.
Johannes Gustavsson has utter commitment to Nordal’s music and directs the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in visionary performances, where the rewards are immense. This is a welcome release by Ondine, which will fill a void in the catalogue. The vivid sonics are immensely appealing.