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Metacosmos (2017) [13:03]
Haukur TÓMASSON (b 1960)
Piano Concerto No. 2 (2016) [17:01]
María Huld Markan SIGFÚSDÓTTIR (b 1980)
Oceans (2018) [9:35]
Páll Ragnar PÁLSSON (b 1977)
Quake, for cello and orchestra (2017) [15:33]
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir (cello)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Bjarnason
rec. 2018/19, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland
Reviewed in stereo and Pure Audio surround sound Blu-ray
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92237 CD & Blu-ray [55:21]

I listened to this issue in its entirety before reading the notes. When I did get to them, the opening line of Steve Smith’s brief essay more eloquently hits the mark than anything I could possibly conjure up: “Can you hear a country in its music?” It’s a question whose essence I have skirted around when reviewing previous Sono Luminus recordings of Icelandic repertoire, and the unequivocal response is made manifest in the basaltic accents that emerge here. This is sonic Gaia. All these pieces are cut from the same sort of cloth, or rather hewn from similar rock. Smith riffs on the idea of that each of these works are touched in their own way by human dimensions, but each listener will (and should) have a completely individual response to this superb music, and notwithstanding the occasional major chord or cinematic cadence for me this is demonstrably the sound of the Northern earth. At least two of these works are implacably geophysical and proved as awesome to my adult sensibilities as ascending Great Gable for the first time proved as a teenager, or hearing (and ‘feeling’) Sibelius’ 4th Symphony as a twelve-year-old.

I reviewed an impressive Sono Luminus disc of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s recent ensemble pieces last year, but even they are trumped by her orchestral work Metacosmos. I predict its singular, gripping atmosphere will hook most listeners within ten seconds. If the recording is immersive via two speakers, its severity and furious beauty cut through decisively in the surround option. Metacosmos simultaneously chills and burns. Its pedals shake the room (they sent the cat scurrying for cover), while its little microtonal inflections and subtle harmonic shifts demand full focus from the listener. A mighty, unexpected ‘click’ makes one jump out of one’s skin (is this spiccato, or sul ponticello, or pizzicato or all three?). The composer may make liberal use of extended techniques, but there is nothing wilful or contrived; Thorvaldsdóttir simply has an extraordinary ear for sonority. Metacosmos is compact and elegant as well as violent and unsettling. Gongs that shimmer when bowed, the breathing of the earth and the simmering of hot springs, whirling, swirling winds; all fit perfectly in what is a comprehensively engrossing 13 minutes. In its closing moments grave chords collide and merge, (perhaps serving to remind the listener of their own insignificance and limited shelf life) before little molten chips of sound fall from the fading edifice, the last of which rises in exhaustion in a fragile glissando to a faint sustained note. In seeking to characterise Metacosmos the composer herself alludes to “…….the speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole – the unknown.” The work was enthusiastically received after it was played during the first week of the BBC Proms last year when Edward Gardner led the combined orchestras of the RAM and the Juilliard School. This performance is even better, while the recording is jaw-dropping even by Sono Luminus standards. By now I’ve heard a lot of music by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Metacosmos is her best thing yet.

And I’m not even sure it’s my favourite piece on this album. I referred to Páll Ragnar Pálsson’s Quake for cello and orchestra in a review of another Sono Luminus disc, Vernacular, a challenging and rewarding solo recital by the young cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir of new Icelandic works, including Pálsson’s solo cello sequel Afterquake. This concertante prequel inevitably sounds more expansive yet to my ears the cello seems less dependent on the primal vocal quality that haunted and humanised the solo piece. Here Thorsteinsdóttir fulfils a primus inter pares role, echoing, amplifying and frankly regurgitating the threatening tectonic chaos going on all around her. The quieter passages in this remarkable work are far more ominous and discomfiting than the louder ones. Here is a cold, lonely cliché-free post-apocalyptic landscape which provides conclusive evidence of another composer whose penchant for sculpted sound seems quite untouched by textbook dogma. Mysterious, resonant raindrops of percussion leak through the crevices in the early stages of Quake; there are spitting sounds, gently dark ructions from the orchestra. Odd shards of piano register, unexpected bassoon notes, chittering winds, a simultaneously earthy and unearthly high passage for the soloist. Scything isolated notes precipitate a weird string-led climax cushioned by tam-tam. Then an uncomfortable crescendo pre-empts raw, piercing melody in the cello and a series of huge, sonic waves. The aftermath suggests a despairingly lacrymose Earth, the shivering, screeching winds again and a displaced suggestion of what sound like steel pans. There’s nothing right about this landscape, but Pálsson’s fastidious design is perfectly worked out. More ambivalent cello sounds precede a wood-block click which seems profoundly significant, prior to a terrifying tearing noise in the lowest range of the bassoon. Later in the work Pálsson’s crying ‘seabirds’ which soared above the fabric of Afterquake make an appearance after a more sustained ‘lyrical’ passage from the soloist. Play the Blu-Ray and yet more telling features emerge, creepy harmonics and haloes of what may or may not be tuned glasses. I’ve barely scratched the surface - Quake is profoundly disturbing yet disturbingly inviting. It yields more in each successive encounter. It’s magnificently played and recorded.

In what is a carefully ordered programme Metacosmos and Quake bookend two pieces which are scarcely less intriguing or impressive – they are simply less visceral in their impact. Haukur Tómasson’s Piano Concerto No 2 seems almost casual and impromptu-like by comparison. The slow tread of a repeated high piano note spawns a wedge-like shape involving flute, strings and percussion. A sliver of melody signals chirruping winds and muted brass. The much-lauded Víkingur Ólafsson riffs intricately on this initial premise, and if what at times seems like a leisurely stroll wearies the soloist, there is an orchestral backcloth of pleasantly busy, rustling threads upon which he can rest and reflect. The ticking pulse is always around even if it’s merely implied at times. Tómasson’s piano part is self-effacing, by turn spiky and rolling. It’s hardly virtuosic in the traditional sense, but it requires both precision and heart and Ólafsson oozes both. The spirit of the opening material never leaves the piece, though textures thicken and harmonies intensify as it proceeds. The orchestra is used deftly throughout, while Ólafsson is a wonderfully tasteful, thoughtful guide and effortlessly projects the weightlessness that permeates this ambivalent, enigmatic piece. I imagine the orchestral accompaniment is far more exacting for the players than it sounds (an impression reinforced by the Blu-Ray) and the conducting of Daniel Bjarnason, another Icelandic wunderkind suggests an Ades-like grasp of Tómasson’s devilish detail. The Concerto appeared rather inscrutable during my initial listen; subsequent encounters have suggested it’s anything but.

María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Oceans constitutes another technicolor vehicle for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Sono Luminus engineers. Harmonics escape from a high unison in strings and flutes and form the DNA of a tentatively built chord topped by brass which hints at tonality. What follows is arguably the most ‘human’ music on the disc, melding eerie glissandi and heartfelt melody. The light that bounces off the orchestral surfaces dazzles, dulls and unexpectedly reappears. Sigfúsdóttir is truly democratic in the way she shares the material among the players; she creates a rich collage of ever shifting orchestral colour and depth, and a narrative which some listeners may feel approaches Hollywood; for me though, the harmonies are blurred and bent adroitly enough to ensure the music never cloys. Its conclusion is satisfying and convincing. Oceans fits perfectly Into the concept of this disc.

No praise can be too high for the outstanding musicianship of all involved in this priceless album which may well end up being my disc of the year, given that as I write there are only another 342 days left of it. As for Sono Luminus, their sonics continue to astound, and here they are certainly helped along significantly by the phenomenal acoustics of the auditoria at Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall. Quite apart from anything else, Concurrence is a timely reminder of the extraordinary things the most visionary composers can do with an orchestra. I’ve referred to it in many previous reviews; the fact that so many come from Iceland continues to amaze and delight.

Richard Hanlon

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