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Jón NORDAL (b.1926)
Grima (2002) [10.22]
Karolina ERIKSDÓTTIR (b.1951)
Brot (Fragment) [9.19]
Gunnar Andreas KRISTINSSON (b.1976)
Arma viramque cano (2004) [12.53]
Jónas TÓMASSON (b.1946)
MMOSO (2000) [9.47]
Páll Pamplichler PÁLSSON ( b.1977)
Kristallar 2(000) [12.36]
Thuridur JÓNSDÓTTIR (b.1967)
Crus (2006) [6.52]
Úlfar Ingi HARALDSSON (b.1973)
Luce di transizione (1995) [12.07]
Hugi GUDMUNDSSON (b.1977)
HEX (2007) [15.36]
Sveinn Luovik BJORNSSON (b.1932)
Quasi concerto (2007) [17.29]
Jón Bernharosson (French horn), Una Svenbjarnardóttir (violin)
Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra/Bernhardur Wilkinson
rec. Sulurinn, Kópavogi, The National Gallery Studio and Studio Syrland in 2000-13
SMEKKLEYSA SMK91 [54.53 + 52.05]

This is a double album of music by some of Iceland’s leading composers. The orchestra playing them here also commissioned and first performed these works. So these are musicians who really understand what they are playing.

The CD gets its title from the first work Grima appropriately by the elder statesman of Icelandic music, now 91, Jón Nordal. If you are familiar with his music you will recognise the style- spare, dark-hued and in it’s opening with its use of 5ths and 4ths a link back to the extraordinary Jón Leifs (1899-1968) whom Nordal knew. The title ‘Grima’ has multiple meanings, literally ‘mash’ but often meaning a mask but used here signifying ‘night’, and twilight or even ‘the first snows of a Autumn’ to quote the booklet notes. If you know the CD of Nordal’s music recorded on the Icelandic ITM label (7-04) then you will have come across the wonderful ‘Adagio’ of 1965. That is the language of Grima, unsettling and almost primitive.

Whereas Grima is dark and spare, Karolina Eriksdóttir’s (much of whose music is available on CD) early work Brot (Fragment) inhabits a bright, but cold landscape unpeopled but not inhospitable which meditates on a single interval, the third (major and minor) not that you would realise it, as it is cloaked in the most mystic colours, including bells, harp and a duet for oboe and horn. I was much taken with this work especially as it grew and materialised into something more than the sum of its parts.

The title MMOSO is explained in the booklet, I wont bore you with its derivation just to say that in comes out as ‘In a two-thousand-like manner”, and that’s when it was composed. Jónas Tómasson has written an almost neo-classical work reminding one of Stravinsky, say, Dumbarton Oaks. Here strings and winds are pitted antiphonally against each other. The ideas are structured in blocks of varying time signatures and these grow in speed and in intensity until climaxing at the three-quarters point in the music, then fading back to where they began. An interesting exercise perhaps but one of mostly note-spinning it seems to me.

Of about the same length is Arma virumque cano by Gunnar Kristinsson taken from a live performance one of the younger composers in this set, being now 41. It is scored for winds, mainly high winds and apparently utilises an Icelandic duet as its material. The title comes from Virgil, which even my schoolboy Latin translates as ‘I sing of Arms’. These words in translation are used is the duet song known in Iceland as ‘Island farsaelda Fron’. But, as far as this listener was concerned I could not pick out anything recognisable. It is in six sections ending with a sort of crazy, jazzy, jam session. Hjálmar Ragnarsson’s notes makes out a good case that the work is carefully constructed highlighting the tonal centres, scales and intervals used. I was glad when it was over and found nothing in it to make me want to listen to it again.

The antithesis, almost of the above work is Pall Pálsson’s Kristallar scored for strings and wind quintet. This is, pretty much, a tonal work and a witty one at times. After a dance-like opening we move into a more mysterious section and a dirge-like segment, which marks the moment when the composer heard of the death of a friend. But the mood often changes and the notes also talk of an attempt by the composer at putting the work into some kind of sonata form with an exposition and development. Although, a little eccentric and serious in places this is quite a fun piece and , like everything on these two CDs brilliantly played with all the understanding that an orchestra who premiered the work should show.

It is interesting that my first reaction as I listened to Crus by Thursdur Jónsdóttir was that it had been influenced by electronic music with what the composer calls a piece “without a label” she goes on to be quoted saying “When composing I sometimes let the instruments imitate a computer which is imitating instruments”. It is, I feel a piece in flux with kaleidoscopic sounds swirling and waving. It becomes a mini piano concerto towards the end as the tonal centres quickly oscillate like a “restless web of harmonies” as Hjámar Ragnarsson writes in his ideal booklet notes. The composer trained as a flautist and now lives in Bologna.

But the second CD begins with Úlfar Inga Haraldsson who is represented here but his Luce di transizione (Light of transition) who had the good fortune, along with most of the composers on these discs to have the Icelandic premiere of his work given as part of the annual ‘Dark Days Festival’ which is held at the darkest point of the winter., this piece in 2003. It falls into four sections played without a break, that is Andante sostenuto, which ends in an unexpected D major triad then a Ritmico section, flowed by Giocoso e ritmico and Lento e magico culminating in a serene E Major chord. The magical atmosphere is enhanced in this section and also throughout, by the unusual scoring of celesta and piano, harp, marimba, timpani, tam-tam and a string ensemble. A fascinating work and one written when the composer was a student in the USA.

The next work Hex by Hugi Gudmundsson is a premiere recording as it is for all of the pieces in this set. Indeed, I for one have not been, up till now, familiar with most of the composers and, I’m ashamed to say, Bjornson is one. Hex is a horn concerto in three movements with strings, used very imaginatively and colourfully. The opening is slow and searching but this is quickly followed by an Allegro. There is a beautiful slow movement, which one wishes were longer and a finale, which I wished, was shorter as it contains some of the more extreme textures and ideas. If the harmonic structure seems restricted, indeed it’s because it is based on two six-note hexachords (hence the title?), which result in covering all 12 pitches. At the end of the finale they come together spanning the entire range available. This has proved to be a work of interest and one I have heard a few times but I feel is less successful in its longest movement, the last.

Rather unwieldy is the last work of the set by Sveinn Lúovik Björnsson, his Quasi Concerto. He is mainly known as guitarist. It’s the longest work in this double album and moves slowly and in an unpeopled landscape comprising of tonal clusters, quartertones and gradual high tension. The scoring is for solo violin and a string orchestra of just twelve players. The soloist moves in and out of the continuous string space hence the title, as the concerto element is one not of conflict but of togetherness with the solo part even occasionally being doubled. At times Ligeti comes to mind in the pianissimo clusters. As it develops some kind of tonality emerges, chrysalis -like from the corpse, dragging itself into the light. The soloist ending the piece with a fragment which dissolves into the icy cosmos.

One cannot fault the recording or the discipline of the ensemble guided by Bernhardur Wilkinson who has been working in Iceland since 1975 having been a chorister at no less than Westminster Abbey.

The CDs come in a double cardboard pack with the excellent booklet notes and biographies already mentioned.

Gary Higginson



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