This recording comes as two discs in different formats, one a standard CD. The other a Blu-ray surround sound audio disc. My review is based on the standard CD version.
Halldór Smárason, pianist and composer, was born at Ísafjörður in north-western Iceland. He obtained an initial degree at the Iceland Academy of the Arts before, supported by A Fulbright grant, gaining an M.M. (Master of Music) at the Manhattan School of Music in 2014. In the following year he worked with Beat Furrer in Vienna and Graz. As a composer he has worked with significant ensembles and orchestras such as the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Oslo Sinfonietta and Ensemble intercontemporain. He has written works for String Quartet, e.g. draw + play (2017) and BLAKTA (2018); for chamber ensemble and video, e.g. The Humber Star (2017); for piano trio, e.g. it means what you think itmeans (2014); as well as for orchestra, e.g. rekast (2016) and infinite image (2019) and for solo instruments, such as eo, for organ (2015), ☉, for amplified cello (2017) and Án skilnings / Ununderstanding (2018) for amplified flute and electronics (2018).
STARA is the first CD of Smárason’s music. The six works on it give at least some idea of his range, consisting, as they do, of three works for string quartet – with and without electronics – (draw + play, Stara and BLAKTA), one for guitar and electronics (Skúlptúr 1) and two for small chamber ensembles (stop breathing and _a_t_na). For those unfamiliar with Smárason’s musical language, the best starting point is perhaps the piece that provides the CD’s title. Stara – the one dictionary that I have been able to consult tells me that in Icelandic ‘stara’ means ‘stare’. That this is relevant seems to be confirmed by a brief note on the piece in the CD booklet. (The notes on individual works are unsigned, but I suspect that they are based on information provided by the composer, if not actually written by him). Two sentences in the note on Stara read as follows: “Written for string quartet and electronics, the piece is inspired by the act of staring into space, when minds fall into a peaceful trance. Stara is dedicated to the composer’s mother, who lost her eyesight a few years ago”. The language of this work will not, I think, trouble any listener who has heard and valued the quartets of, say Beat Furrer (I choose Furrer as an example since Smárason has been associated with him). Stara, one should bear in mind was written in 2012, when Smárason would have been in his early twenties.
Rather more difficult to come to terms with is Skúlptúr 1, written a year later. It is, once more, worth quoting the description of the work in the CD booklet: “In this short piece for guitar and electronics […] the performer portrays a sculptor carving an ice sculpture in a race with the clock before the ice melts. If the performer can’t finish the score in time, an alarm built in the electronic component will go off and end the piece”. I confess to becoming rather bored by this piece, in part because of the difficulty, when one is only hearing the piece, of knowing where, aurally speaking, the guitar ends and the electronics start, as it were. And, of course, one misses the theatrical element present in a concert performance.
I suspect that quite a few of Smárason’s compositions need to be seen as well as heard. I offered to review this disc in part because I remembered a review I had read some time ago. After searching online, and in an old notebook, I managed to locate that review. It is of a concert performance of the piece which closes this disc, _a_at_na. The review, by Aksel Tollåli, is of a 2014 concert given as part of the Oslo Chamber Music Festival, a concert which included new works by four young composers – one of whom was Halldór Smárason (the review was published on Bachtrack on August 21, 2014 – and is reproduced on Smárason’s own website). Tollåli’s comments on _a_at_na read thus (in full): “The last of the new pieces, _a_at_na by Haldor Smarason, proved something of a frustration. The piece for four violins, viola, cello, clarinet, prepared piano and tape was really rather mystifying. To a large extent it consisted of long, low, drawn-out phrases with no apparent direction. Coupled with this were a series of projected images that seemed to have no connection to the music, making for a decidedly puzzling experience.” Tollåli doesn’t seem to have found the quasi-theatrical context for the piece particularly helpful (the note in the CD booklet tells us that in “live performances the piano is isolated in the middle of the audience whereas the rest of the performers surround the audience”. The same note tells the reader that “this can be realized in the fully immersive audio version of the album” which, unfortunately, I do not have the means to listen to. As it is, I found my interest fully and consistently engaged only in the last 90 seconds or so of the piece, particularly by the way the sound of running water is used.
Similar problems arise in listening to some of the other pieces, as I have had to do, in standard CD format. I feel sure that much of the work on this disc cannot fairly be judged without being physically present at a performance. I say this despite being impressed by what sound like committed and competent performances by the Siggi String Quartet, assisted by others including flautist Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir, guitarist Gulli Björnsson, clarinettist Helga Björg Arnadóttir asnd pianist Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir.
Listening to this CD, at least in its standard format, has sadly been a rather frustrating experience.
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