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Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Edda, Part II: The Lives of the Gods Op 42 (1951/66)
Oratorio in 6 parts for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra
Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir (mezzo-soprano) Elmar Gilbertsson (tenor) Kristinn Sigmundsson (bass)
Schola Cantorum Reykjavík
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Hermann Bäumer
rec. 2018, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland
Sung text and translation included
Reviewed in stereo and surround
BIS BIS-2420 SACD [65:10]

My colleague Dan Morgan has already given a warm welcome to this disc. I’d like to fill in a few gaps and respectfully make the odd correction. Having been familiar with this composer for almost twenty years now, I have snapped up each new issue in BIS’s ongoing series (more often than not on their respective release days). This is actually the 13th volume on the label exclusively devoted to Leifs; in addition his tiny, impossibly moving unaccompanied Requiem features on a couple of BIS choral compilations. There have been a few discs from other sources; Chandos released a Leifs album way back in 1996 and Baldr was recorded even further back by Paul Zukofsky and the Iceland Youth Symphony Orchestra and released on Zukofsky’s own elusive Musical Observations label (it’s a pioneering effort but pales into insignificance compared to the magnificent BIS issue - review). There have also been a couple of Leifs issues on ITM (the Icelandic Music Information Centre’s own label). So in actual fact the total number of discs dedicated to the undisputed father of Icelandic music amounts to about twenty; the 68 albums quoted by my learned colleague in his recent review seems to include verbal references to the composer (and even ‘also available’ marketing pitches) in booklets for other CDs – closer scrutiny bears this out. I get a similar figure when searching on the BIS website and even on Amazon. The major labels haven’t caught on to Leifs yet. Trust me: they will in time.

Why mention any or all of this? Leifs is one of those very few figures whose fingerprints are immediately identifiable in virtually all of his works. He was a complete original, and I confidently predict a time when he is seen as an absolute giant of what we consider to be art-music. Of course there are maverick figures dotted throughout the history of contemporary music whose output is pretty uneven; readers will have their own nominees but I would cite Antheil, Martinů, Havergal Brian and Schnittke as four examples off the top of my head. In my view Leifs is right up there with first rank originals like Janacek, Britten, Ives, Sibelius and Sculthorpe. What I find fascinating is that none of these figures are Gallic or Germanic – I’m absolutely at one with the view of the New Yorker’s Alex Ross; he has suggested that perceptions of greatness in classical music are often skewed by the associations we make consciously or otherwise with nationality and tradition. The pejorative word that crops up repeatedly next to some of these figures is ‘provincial’. And in relative terms a small island in the North Atlantic with a population not much greater than that of Nottingham epitomises the concept.

Dan Morgan (and other MWI critics like Rob Barnett) are absolutely on the money when they argue that Leifs’ music seems to spew forth from the Earth itself. It also reeks of the distant past, of the worlds of the ancients. It is utterly primal. I absolutely envy those listeners who respond to the sheer viscerality of The Rite of Spring or Mosolov’s Iron Foundry or Varese’s Ameriques who have yet to hear a note of Leifs. If any readers would like a try, stream Hekla, or Geysir, or Dettifoss, short pieces which by comparison (in my view) reduce The Rite to the level of a children’s lullaby. If you fancy something longer, try Osmo Vänskä’s terrific recording of the Saga Symphony (review). I guarantee some readers will never forget the moment they discovered Jón Leifs.

In my case it was donkey’s years ago – it had something to do with trying to find some completely novel repertoire for a string group with whom I had indirect connections. I wrote a letter (with pen and paper and a stamp - it was that long ago) to the Icelandic Music Information Centre for some suggestions. A few weeks later they generously sent me gratis some photocopied scores, a book (in English) about the history of Icelandic music and a couple of discs – one of which included Hekla. I was smitten and have been ever since.

And so to the new disc. The Edda project occupied Leifs for most of his career; it remained unfinished at the end of his life. The earliest preserved Icelandic poetry dates from the early thirteenth century, but experts suspect its sources are much older still. There is a succinct and cogent summary of the history of Eddic poetry in the characteristically excellent BIS booklet written by Leifs’ biographer Árni Heimir Ingólfsson (his new biography in English, Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland is due to be published by the Indiana University Press in November 2019). Part Two of Leifs’ Edda is subtitled The Lives of the Gods and consists of six movements; the texts for each comprises verses which have been anthologised from a number of ancient sources, notably the Poetic Edda (c 1270) and the Prose Edda (c 1225). The movements’ durations are oddly balanced; Ingólfsson suggests that toward the end of Leifs’ life pragmatism set in and in making a huge effort to complete the project he rather shortened the last three panels, which thus collectively only account for about a fifth of Part Two.

The first movement amounts to a strident hagiography of the Deity-in-Chief Odin. A chorale of loamy. deep winds launches a vibrant, varied tapestry detailing Odin’s traits, deeds and powers. The male soloists are superb, the bass Kristinn Sigmundsson loamy and full, the tenor Elmar Gilbertsson sweet-toned and lighter voiced. At one point (referring to the song of the dwarf Thiodrerir) Gilbertsson adopts a style of singing which Ingólfsson likens to yodelling. All of Leifs’ trademarks: the jagged rhythms, the sudden speeding up and slowing down of tempi and the huge, volcanic eruptions of choral and orchestral sound dominate the movement. The clashes and concords between soloists and choir are reproduced with quite terrifying fidelity, while the impact of the surround layer is awesome, but engineered so skilfully so as never to completely overpower the listener. Unexpected details emerge cleanly in this form. Leifs use of tremolando is masterly and truly atmospheric. The movement concludes with a ferocious percussive jab, representing the locking of Valgrind, the second gate of Hel. Odin resembles a saga in itself rather than a mere character portrait. Listeners new to Leifs might benefit from a stiff drink at this point.

The texts for the remaining five movements essentially involve Biblical style lists of Gods and Goddesses. The second lists Odin’s seventeen sons and tells us a little about each one. Its mood here is relatively jaunty and puckish compared to its predecessor, but Leifs’ music is unique, so these adjectives do little justice to a choral and orchestral sound picture which is never less than exhilarating. There is a softer section at its centre, but this soon gives way to declamatory passages which trigger huge chordal climaxes. Choral styles span the whole gamut between syllabic whispering to full throated roaring.

It is perhaps possible for the listener to make structural sense of this entire canvas in symphonic terms. If that second panel equates to a scherzo, perhaps the following movement Goddesses can be perceived nominally as the slow movement. At twenty minutes it is certainly the longest section, There is a lot of work for the mezzo-soprano Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir, and her supple yet robust voice proves her to be yet another outstanding homegrown soloist. The male soloists introduce some of the Goddesses rather in the manner of moderators; when they sing in duet their sound is almost other worldly. The music of Goddesses is slower, and the strange harmonies Leifs creates seem closer. This gentler music seems to reinforce the traditional gender stereotypes hinted at in the text; these Goddessses tend toward principles of care and nurture rather than to the law or cold justice applied by their male counterparts (in the main). This is Leifs’ in more reflective mood (relatively speaking); he draws subtler, pastel shades and more pronounced chamber textures from his enormous forces. It doesn’t last, of course; there are yet more novel, exciting effects as the movement draws to its close.

And so to stretch the symphonic allusion still further, the trio of brief movements with which Part Two concludes could be imagined together to comprise a finale. The tiny Valkyries section alternates staccato syllabic sounds form the voices with more drawn-out phrasing. It’s jagged and thrilling, a vivid portrayal of the characters who choose from the victims of battle and accompany them to Valhalla. The fifth section contains some of Leifs’ most ethereal music, often contrasting stratospheric flutes and strings with low winds and brass. This depicts the Norns, the Eddic equivalent of the Fates. The composer packs astonishing extremes of colour into this movement- tentative, whispered voices at odds with murky subterranean rumblings. Note the extraordinary Lur-driven fanfares at the 3:09 mark. The sixth and final movement, Warriors, is terrifying. Think of the impact of the timpani at the conclusion on Nielsen’s mighty fourth Inextinguishable symphony. Square it. (Or if one is listening to the surround layer, cube it). The section is defined by drums- timpani, bass drums, and I suspect other, as yet unidentified percussion. The beats break up, eventually two against three. Even for Leifs, this is something else and momentarily makes the mighty Kodo Drummers of Japan seem tame by comparison. There is a fascinating choral effect at 4:30 which recalls the sound of Hekla or Geysir. Huge staccato chords close the work.

Árni Heimir Ingólfsson describes the gestation of Leifs’ Edda series in some detail in the booklet and addresses the obvious comparisons with Wagner. Apparently Leifs had heard (and enjoyed) Siegfried in a Munich production under Karl Muck in 1920 and devoted much of his time at the Leipzig Conservatory to the study of Wagner. Ultimately however he appears to have turned decisively against him and perceived his treatment of Nordic mythology as diluted and over sentimental. Ultimately, I cannot help but wonder; if one were to read the stories of the Edda, or other examples of Norse mythology, absolutely uncorrupted by any experience or knowledge of music, would one more instinctively imagine sounds closer to those that Leifs produced, or those that emerge on an annual basis from Bayreuth (and with considerable regularity from virtually every other musical centre)?

This is an absolutely thrilling disc. Despite music of at times terrifying violence, the performances by soloists, choirs and the increasingly imposing Iceland Symphony Orchestra also project tremendous refinement and tact. As Dan Morgan has intimated, the new Harpa Concert Hall seems to have raised the bar still further for BIS Records’ ambitious Leifs project. I have never heard a note of Leifs live in a concert hall and I suspect experiencing a piece like this in the Harpa would create an unforgettable visual, let alone auditory experience. But the big Edda pieces, or Baldr, are perhaps not the ideal starting points for those new to this most singular of voices. I have already mentioned a few of his orchestral masterpieces, works that in my view are more than worthy of such apparent hyperbole. To get an initial, authentic idea of Leifs’ unique way with music, I would advise anyone to stream one (or all) of his three magnificent and profoundly moving string quartets, in the unsurpassable accounts by the Yggdrasil Quartet (BIS-CD 691). It’s one of my all-time top ten recordings.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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