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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. A DXD recording
Reviewed as a stereo DSD128 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
ISO Project Volume 2
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92237 [55:21]

‘Quietly spectacular’ was my response to Recurrence, the first instalment in this series devoted to contemporary Icelandic repertoire. Two composers represented there – Anna Thorvaldsdóttir and María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir – also feature here, as do the ISO, directed by composer-conductor Daniel Bjarnason. And don’t forget Sono Luminus’s crack recording team, Dan Merceruio and Daniel Shores.

Indeed, SL have an enviable reputation when it comes to sonic splendour, as I first discovered with America Again, an outstanding recital from pianist Lara Downes; it was one of my top picks for 2016. From the same year comes Beyond, an eclectic mix of cutting-edge compositions presented by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. As you may have guessed, that was also a Recording of the Year. (Incidentally, in 2015 Steinway used Sono Luminus and their studio in Boyce, Virginia, to record Stewart Goodyear playing his piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker.)

Of course, delivering the technical goodies is only half the story, so it helps that every one of those albums contains music – and musicianship – of exceptional quality. As for Icelandic music in general, it often reflects the country’s unique landscape - Jón Leifs’ Geysir springs to mind - so it’s no surprise to find a piece called Quake on the track-list here. That said, the national idiom isn’t just about bleak, untamed terrain, it’s also about a mythical past (Leifs’ Edda, Parts I & II, for instance). What these and other subjects share, though, is a taste for the epic. Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s mighty meditation, Metacosmos, is no exception, offering as it does a restless, glissandi-dominated musical universe; it’s darkly lustrous, too, the ISO’s instrumental blend impeccable throughout. Unlike many of its ilk, the work is neither pretentious nor overlong, its firmament studded with moments of stark beauty and strength. As expected, the recording itself is well up to the hallowed standards of the house.

By contrast, Haukur Tómasson’s one-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 inhabits a comparatively small, very focused sound world, the ever-present solo thread – well taken by Víkingur Ólafsson – woven deep into the orchestral fabric. There’s certainly enough here to sustain one’s interest, Bjarnason a secure and sympathetic presence from start to finish. Goodness, he and his players are hugely committed to this new music - as, indeed, they were in Recurrence - and it shows in every precise, impassioned bar.

María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Oceans, like her earlier Aequora, has a watery theme. Rest assured, there’s more to both pieces than simple description; indeed, the latter, with its ‘strong pulse … and beguiling colour palette’ was one of the highlights of Recurrence. After its very quiet introduction, the former takes on a Wagnerian amplitude that’s simply breath-taking. As before, the writing is all the more powerful for being understated, its majestic ebb and flow magnificently caught by this rich, full-bodied band. Oceans’ imposing crests are unerringly placed and proportioned, the whole score framed in sound of considerable poise and power.

Now for Páll Ragnar Pálsson’s Quake, for cello and orchestra. Despite the title, it’s not a seismic event in the graphic, pate-cracking style of, say, Alan Hovhaness. That said, there are passages of subterranean shock - fabulous, well balanced bass drum, by the way - with moments of frisson-inducing shimmer and surpassing strangeness, soloist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir adding her distinctive voice to Pálsson’s orchestral choir. My colleague Richard Hanlon admired the piece a great deal, and while I was less enthusiastic to start with, I soon found Quake’s ‘density of specification’ and its sheer ‘otherness’ curiously addictive. Not my favourite among this striking quartet, perhaps, but well worth getting to know. As with Recurrence, the enthusiastic and informative liner-notes are by Steve Smith.

An intriguing and immersive follow-up to Recurrence; and, as expected, it’s all superbly played and recorded.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Richard Hanlon

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