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Páll Ragnar PÁLSSON (b 1977)
Atonement, for soprano, flute, piano, violin, viola and cello (2014) [9:22]
Lucidity, for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and cello (2017) [9:02]
Stalker’s Monologue, for soprano, flute, clarinet, harp, piano, percussion, violin, viola and cello (2013) [9:53]
Midsummer’s Night, for flute, clarinet, harp, percussion and reciter (2018) [5:54]
Wheel Crosses Under Moss, for soprano, flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello (2011) [9:55]
Tui Hirv (soprano)
Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir (reciter)
Caput Ensemble/Tui Hirv
rec. 2019, Kaldalón Auditorium, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland
English texts included
Reviewed in Blu-ray surround sound and stereo
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92241 BD-A/CD [44:11]

This new portrait disc dedicated to the fascinating music of Páll Ragnar Pálsson follows the release in 2018 of the album ‘Nostalgia’ (on the Icelandic label Smekkleysa 521277), whose title track is a searing violin concerto. In between I’ve had the good fortune to review a couple of other fine pieces by Pálsson, both written for the exciting young Icelandic cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir; I really enjoyed the remarkable concertante work Quake (review) and found its solo instrumental cousin Afterquake equally riveting (review). Both pieces appeared on earlier Sono Luminus releases; this American audiophile label has massively raised the profile of new Icelandic music in recent years. The five works on the new disc prove to be no less captivating or intense than their predecessors.

Among these pieces for chamber ensembles (four of which include voice), both Atonement and Midsummer’s Night incorporate texts by one of the composer’s regular collaborators, the poetess Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, who recites most atmospherically in the latter work. In both cases the words seem to be driven by the idea of personal renewal, a concept which chimes with Pálsson’s return to Iceland after living and working in Estonia for many years. His wife is the Estonian soprano Tui Hirv who sings on three of the items in this survey, including Atonement. Indeed the textures with which this piece commences are cool and vernal, spiky string threads softened by the gentler tones of flute, piano and voice. The vocal writing is assured in its projection of a tentativeness which seems at odds with the self-confidence of Gunnarsdóttir’s text. Ultimately this may have something to do with the listener’s concentration levels - Pálsson’s fastidious craftsmanship both demands and deserves really focused attendance to the minute instrumental details; the rewards for the effort emerge most vividly in the 5.1 surround option – it goes without saying that the Sono Luminus sound is astonishing in both manifestations. There is a Saariahoesque opacity to Pálsson’s instrumental writing. The words of Midsummer’s Night seem to allude to a singular, memorable moment of intimate sensory fulfilment. The poet delivers them herself with a sense of studied, deadpan detachment which utterly illuminates the vivacity of Pálsson’s luminous colours and clever word-painting. The timbres he draws from just four players both ravish and consume, the sounds seemingly expanding to fill the space.

The one non-vocal item is Lucidity for six players. At first hearing its intricate web of sound again seems to contradict the piece’s title, but its transparency becomes more apparent with repetition. This is the work on this album in which Pálsson’s music seems most obviously touched by nature, its ripe flute touches and fragile violin lines conveying a sense of hovering and breathing, a feeling of suspension which is nonetheless anchored by hyperactivity in the instrumental undergrowth provided by clarinet, cello, low piano and percussion. The bass regions glower, rumble and shimmer by turn. At its conclusion Lucidity dissolves into nothingness.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic masterpiece Stalker incorporates a number of profound monologues delivered by the central characters. One of the most powerful and disturbing is communicated by the titular ‘Stalker’ and addresses the paradoxical idea that life and strength is to be found in weakness, and vice-versa. Pálsson sets an English translation of the speech for soprano and eight players. The instrumental textures never settle; they shake, emerge momentarily and disappear at the precise moment the listener has registered them. Whilst this shimmering backdrop is in a state of constant flux, Tui Hirv projects the text in tones that oscillate between smoky and girlish and lived-in and still-centred. It is perfectly possible to perceive her voice as an instrumental colour rather than an offbeat messenger; the listener might absorb the text’s syllablc units as percussive textures, especially when they’re pitted against or within expansive harp gestures or eerie slo-mo cello glissandi. One of the most engaging features of this composer’s art is his instinctive ability at making pieces which seem to begin and end in medias res, a compelling quality which is evident in Stalker’s Monologue and to which he indirectly alludes in his booklet note where he characterises his creative process as ‘…not beginning a new journey with each composition….rather continuing from where I left off in the last one….’

This also applies to the final item Wheel Crosses Under Moss, the earliest work here and a souvenir of his time in Estonia. Here the texts are compiled from a quartet of old Swedish hymns once sung on Vormsi Island just off the north-western tip of the mainland. The vocal line is a tad more lyrical, although the phrases still emerge sporadically, rather than in long spans, a strategy which again amplifies the instrumental qualities of Hirv’s voice. The words seem to relate to the end of day – to sleep, rest and in the final verse to death. The music thus conveys a nocturnal feel, albeit one that relates more to internal states; it is mildly discomfiting, a response perhaps to the things that keep us awake at night.

These five understated works are extremely delicate, finely detailed affairs; they offer a fascinating contrast to the vast, subterranean soundscapes projected in the cello concerto Quake to which I referred earlier. Collectively they provide evidence of a composer as sensitive to the microscopic as he is awed by the monolithic, and whose deft craftsmanship shines through in every bar. The playing of the members of the Caput Ensemble is as refined as the textures Pálsson weaves together so tellingly, their commitment to his cause is both passionate and dedicated. As is reliably the case with Sono Luminus the stereo CD sound is rich and immediate whilst the 5.1 Blu-ray surround is vivid and spectacular. Neither option will disappoint. For me at least the short playing time is certainly not an issue in this case - Pálsson’s pieces may be brief in duration but to my ears they are infinite in their ambition.

Richard Hanlon

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