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South Of The Circle
Daniel BJARNASON (b 1979)
Stillshot (2015) [9:52]
Opacity (2014) [15:18]
Valgeir SIGURÐSSON (b 1971)
Nebraska (2011) [10:54]
Mamiko Dís RAGNARSDÓTTIR (b 1984)
Fair Flowers (2018) [14:45]
Haukur TÓMASSON (b 1960)
Serimonia (2014) [9:06]
Siggi String Quartet
rec. 2018, Masterkey Studios, Seltjarnarnes, Iceland
SONO LUMINUS DSL92232 [59:55]

It is no longer a surprise to receive discs of contemporary Icelandic music in my monthly review bundle; what continues to amaze is the consistently high quality of music that does emerge from that far-flung corner of the North Atlantic. As I have mentioned before, the American audiophile label Sono Luminus seems to invest a great deal of time and effort in promoting and recording this repertoire, not least, one imagines, because of the intricate instrumental detail that seems to characterise so much Icelandic music. It is certainly a noteworthy feature of all the pieces included in this collection.

The new disc features the Siggi String Quartet and carries the self-explanatory title ‘South of the Circle’; it introduces recent quartets by a quintet of native composers. The three males represented are arguably better-known quantities outside of their own country than their two female counterparts, one of whom (Una Sveinbjarnardóttir) appears to double up as the first violin of the group. Her contribution here is the impressive four movement work Opacity, whose individual panels are unusually structured around long solos for each of the instrumentalists. In this piece the composer sought to challenge the received wisdom that solo material in quartets should be brief, thus in the opening piece More, the second violin dominates a fast-slow arrangement that hints at minimalism ,whereas the cello solo in the following Opacity is more intense, and supported by harmonic content which tends towards neo-romanticism until an eerie passage featuring glissandi and harmonics instigates a gradual demise. Elegia is led by a grainy, morose viola accompanied by unsettling, veiled voices articulated by the other instruments in the background. After its skeletal, spare opening the concluding movement Less involves the first violin partly improvising and triggering fragmented responses from the remaining instruments; in the music that emerges silence plays a primary role. These four study-like pieces cohere surprisingly well given the very distinctive atmospheres they each project.

Mamiko Dís Ragnarsdóttir is an academy trained pianist as well as having something of a pop/jazz background and I was especially impressed by her single movement piece Fair Flowers. She has anchored this piece upon a detailed analysis of the colour structures of a nature painting, 'Untitled' by the Reykjavik-based artist Eggert Pétursson. This is a haunting, subtle composition, which moves languidly though a delicate pastel landscape with novel, unexpected harmonic and timbral shifts . It builds to an intense crescendo before slowly fading from focus. I would argue that of all the composers represented here, Ms Ragnarsdóttir’s writing for quartet is the most individual and original; her attractive and unostentatious music had little problem enticing this listener into her distinctive sound world.

Separating these two pieces is Valgeir Sigurðsson’s topographically inspired four movement work Nebraska, written for the Chiara String Quartet to help mark their residency at the University in that state. Sigurðsson is already well known as an eclectic producer and arranger and his atmospheric film music is widely admired. Nebraska was effectively his first ‘classical’ commission. The opening of Flat Water vividly recalls John Adams’ Shaker Loops, while the third piece Erosion is an especially Glassy scherzo although elsewhere in Nebraska the composer’s main pre-occupations seem to be with texture or mood, and these four brief pieces ultimately rely on developing small slivers of material, and collectively succeed in portraying a bare, demanding landscape. The Sono Luminus production especially comes into its own in this piece, effortlessly differentiating and blending the shades of the Siggi Quartet’s individual instruments.

The album is bookended by a pair of single movement quartets by two of Iceland’s most renowned figures. Daniel Bjarnason’s international reputation seems to grow by the month; Stillshot was inspired in part by the nostalgia invoked by early photographic techniques. In his note Bjarnason describes it as a kind of chaconne with a recurring string progression; while some of the harmonic sequences seem tantalisingly familiar, I must admit any perception of a chaconne-type structure eluded me. There are some beguiling sounds here, but I felt Stillshot as a whole was rather too fragmented and at times Bjarnason’s melodic and harmonic sequencing seemed uncomfortably redolent of Thomas Ades. Having recently heard Bjarnason’s superb Violin Concerto I found Stillshot relatively underwhelming, despite the fervent advocacy of this excellent Icelandic group.

Haukur Tómasson’s Serimonia is more interesting; an extended pizzicato opening gives way to more mysterious music, its weirdness imaginatively emphasised by both repetition and contrast. The sonic design of Serimonia demands diamantine clarity in its production, and the Siggi Quartet convey each tiny detail with surgical precision. Again, no praise can be too high for the outstanding Sono Luminus sound which conveys the full gamut of Tómasson’s string sonorities with terrific definition and presence.

I can only re-iterate my astonishment at the seemingly bottomless pit of compositional talent in this tiny country, and once more place on record my admiration for the pragmatism and enterprise of an entire generation of musicians who seem completely unburdened by and indifferent to the idea of discrete musical genres and categories. There is much to enjoy on this disc not least for connoisseurs of the string quartet form, although I personally found the quality of a couple of these pieces somewhat more uneven than other recent examples of Icelandic repertoire from this source.

Richard Hanlon

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