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Thurídur JÓNSDÓTTIR (b. 1967)
Flow and Fusion [11:03]
Hlynur Aðils VILMARSSON (b. 1976)
bd [11:33]
María Huld Markan SIGFÚSDÓTTIR (b. 1980)
Aequora [12:07]
Daníel BJARNASON (b. 1979)
Emergence [16:59]
1. Silence [3:02]
2. Black Breathing [4:51]
3. Emergence [9:06]
Dreaming [15:51]
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Daníel Bjarnason
rec. 5-9 December 2016, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland. A DXD recording
Reviewed as a stereo DSD128 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
Also available on CD/BD-A
ISO Project Volume 1
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92213 [68:46] 

The first Sono Luminus album I ever heard was pianist Lara Downes’s splendid recital, America Again, which was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2016. Apart from the fine playing and imaginative programme I was highly impressed by the engineering; indeed, I declared it ‘set new standards for piano recordings’. The native composers showcased in this, the first volume of the ‘ISO Project’, are all new to me, but a preliminary listen certainly piqued my interest.

As for the ISO, founded in 1950, I heard them last in music by the Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja; that Chandos set, from 1992, was well received on these pages. The conductor there was Petri Sakari. On the same label, and even more recommendable, is their six-disc traversal of Vincent d’Indy’s oeuvre for orchestra, directed by Rumon Gamba. I’ve only reviewed the first and fourth volumes, but I’m happy to report that the rest is just as good. Daníel Bjarnason, the conductor in Recurrence, is also the ISO’s artist in residence. The recording venue is the concert hall in Reykjavik’s Harpa complex.

The sound worlds here will surely appeal to those who know and like the music of Iceland’s best-known composer, Jón Leifs (Geysir especially), and the Dane Anders Hillborg. The acoustic/electronic glissandi and crescendi of composer/flautist Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s Flow and Fusion are discreetly thrilling, and the work’s finely calibrated shapes and sonorities are very impressive. And if that suggests something generic, prepare for a pleasant surprise. Jónsdottir doesn’t overwork her material, and that’s always a good sign. As for the fine recording – engineered by Dan Merceruio and Daniel Shores – it enhances what is already an engrossing aural experience.

Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson is a man of many talents, if his biography is anything to go by; it seems he’s no stranger to rock bands, new technology and composers’ collectives. His enigmatically titled bd is characterised by tangential slides and quiet plosions – those bass-drum thuds have exceptional presence – and there’s a deep, underlying tension here that defies all resolution. Perhaps most important, all this is achieved without faux angst or agitation. This is assured writing, nicely proportioned and subtly delivered; indeed, it left me wanting more.

And although I’ve already praised the sound, the vividness and sheer tactility of composer/violinist María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s seascape, Aequora, took my breath away. There’s a strong pulse and sense of structure to the piece – an ISO commission – not to mention a beguiling colour palette. However, it’s the understated quality of the writing – no hectoring or shallow sensationalism here – that appeals to me more than anything else. Happily, Bjarnason is just as judicious in his direction, and the Sono Luminus team – who might have been tempted to overplay their hand in the climaxes – leave well alone. Chandos et al, please take note.

Bjarnason’s own three-movement Emergence, the longest work here, becomes more compelling as it unfolds. Yes, it’s comparatively emphatic and angular – nothing too sharp, mind – but that’s welcome in a programme so full of shifts and shimmers. That said, the final movement – Emergence – has a spare, evolving loveliness that cossets the ear as much as anything I’ve heard thus far. The quiet virtuosity of both the writing and playing is a joy to hear. Time for another listen, I think, marveling anew at the highly detailed, beautifully balanced sound. Multi-channel enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that the Pure Audio Blu-ray, with its proprietary mShuttle feature, offers 9.1 Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos 11.1 and 5.1 dts-MA as well.

Dreaming, by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, has been recorded as part of an ‘intense and persuasive’ Innova album devoted to her music. That also features the ISO under Bjarnason. There is also a chamber work of her on another Sono Luminous recordings (review). This dark, elemental slumber invokes the spirit of an ancient and ever-changing landscape; it’s certainly not about whooshing waterspouts or the violent grinding of tectonic plates, and that makes for a subtle, beautifully shaped and sustained piece that resonates in the mind long after it has finished. It also allows the engineers to demonstrate just how immersive a sophisticated and meticulously planned recording can be. Demonstration-quality audio, without a doubt.

The booklet contains artist biographies and an enthusiastic essay by one Steve Smith, but I’d have liked a bit more detail on the music and, especially, the origin of some of the gnomic titles, such as bd. At least there is documentation with this download; at the time of writing – mid-April 2017 – none was on offer at eClassical, Qobuz or HDtracks. Rather than prolong the revolving-door farce of who’s ultimately to blame for this, I’d simply ask that it be fixed without delay.

Quietly spectacular scores, beautifully played and recorded; a most desirable issue.

Dan Morgan


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