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Occurrence
ISO Project Vol. 3

Daniel BJARNASON (b 1979)
Violin Concerto (2017) [23:41]
Veronique VAKA (b 1986)
Lendh (2018) [11:36]
Haukur TÓMASSON (b 1960)
In Seventh Heaven (2011) [7:13]
Þuríður JÓNSDÓTTIR (b 1967)
Flutter (2009), for flute, orchestra and field recordings of insects [20:49]
Magnús Blöndal JÓHANNSSON (1925-2005)
Adagio (1980) [7:19]
Pekka Kuusisto (violin); Mario Caroli (flute)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Bjarnason
rec. 2018-2020, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland
Package contains Blu-ray surround sound audio disc and standard CD
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92243 BD-A/CD [70:42]

Let me start without hesitation by considering the Blu-ray 5.1 surround layer on the additional disc in this package (it also includes PCM 2.0, Dolby Atmos and 9.1 mixes of the programme, as well as a conventional stereo CD). It is for ‘orchestral spectacular’ discs like this that I purchased my modest (but effective) Blu-ray surround system – I am far less convinced by the medium in its projection of more intimate fare (and I have spent a fair bit of time in hi-fi retailers’ listening rooms in the past seeking to be convinced). I have repeatedly praised Sono Luminus (and their producer extraordinaire Dan Merceruio) for the outstanding engineering on their audiophile releases but putting these five works through their paces in surround mode was unusually thrilling. One genuinely ‘feels’ the earth move in Veronique Vaka’s strangely addictive Lendh, whilst Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson’s less-is-more Adagio for chamber orchestra is a rare example of intimate music which gains from this kind of spatial presentation. Both Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto and Tómasson’s In Seventh Heaven are sufficiently exciting to sound superb in stereo or surround; yet it’s Þuríður Jónsdóttir’s enchanting flute concerto Flutter which is the real revelation in 5.1. In comparison to the two-speaker option (which still sounds awesome) the textures open up to reveal a wealth of unsuspected timbral detail and spatial variety. It has much to do with the composer’s use of sampled insect sounds drawn from field recordings, but she also has a sophisticated awareness of subtle instrumental colour which emerges vividly in surround. The ‘recommended’ tag atop this review is therefore added as much in recognition of the sonics as it is of the music itself.

Daniel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto was first performed by its dedicatee Pekka Kuusisto at the Hollywood Bowl in 2017, and its subsequent ‘instant classic’ status owes as much to its seamless design as it does to some of the novel effects the composer has deployed, the most obvious of which is the whistling which Kuusisto (and various members of the orchestra) contribute throughout. Indeed the initial gesture is a whistled, rather insouciant tune, projected alongside Kuusisto’s pizzicato accompaniment. This seems to be the seed from which the entire work grows. If this melody seems rather folky at the outset, that impression belies what follows. Bjarnason is a master at wrongfooting his audience, blending writing of blazing confidence with moments of enchantment and fragility during which the entire edifice seems about to implode. Kuusisto’s fiddle part oscillates between passionate intensity and ethereal lightness. By turn accessible and astringent the concerto succeeds by dint of its fluency and a paradoxically confounding sense that the listener can never truly settle. The orchestral writing is consistently atmospheric, yet some of the concertante passages strike home as tough and ‘grungy’. The whistled elements amplify the extraordinarily vocal quality of much of the solo writing. The spiky cadenza was composed by Kuusisto himself. I suspect that one of the reasons this concerto has ‘travelled’ so well is its universality of style – there may well be identifiably ‘Icelandic’ features in its make-up but these are absorbed so subtly that the piece succeeds absolutely on its own terms rather than as an ‘Icelandic’ work. It goes without saying that it is difficult to imagine a performance of greater commitment, not least in the orchestral playing. The loudest tutti passages might seem somewhat congested in the stereo mix; they magically clarify in the surround. (You can get an idea of what this remarkable work ‘looks like’ here, but mark my words, the engineering on this disc does real justice to its exhilarating and singular sound world.

Bjarnoson’s Violin Concerto is a startling achievement, but to my ears Þuríður Jónsdóttir’s flute concerto Flutter is even more attractive. The piece was commissioned to mark the Messiaen centenary back in 2008, and Steve Smith compares the French master’s absorption of birdsong in many of his scores with Jónsdóttir’s choirs of sampled crickets and grasshoppers who have been recruited for Flutter. One thing the work certainly is not is an entomological equivalent of Rautavaara’s masterly Cantus Arcticus. That work’s stately, almost modal progress is replaced by Jónsdóttir’s delicate textures of pure onomatopoeia, a soundscape in which most listeners will struggle to disentangle sampled from instrumental sounds. Binding it together is a beautifully crystalline and virtuosic flute part, delivered with grace and taste by Mario Caroli. At its heart is a profound lyricism which given the diffuse nature of the accompaniment fits like a glove. There are moments when Jónsdóttir (understandably) wishes to wallow in the textures she has made, so any sense of purposefulness in the work needs to be weighed against a sensualist imperative, yet Caroli’s conveyance of the solo line is ultimately the engine that drives Flutter and magnifies its overarching logic. It sounds brilliant through two decent speakers, but as I have already intimated the 5.1 manifestation constitutes as visceral and involving a musical experience as I have ever had in my own living room.

These two big concertante works alone justify the price of admission for this package, but the three shorter pieces chosen for this final instalment of Sono Luminus’s ISO Project absolutely transcend the derogatory descriptor ‘filler’. Haukur Tómasson’s glittering In Seventh Heaven was written for the opening of Reykjavik’s splendid Harpa Concert Hall, the venue for all these recordings and an audiophile’s dream. It develops from rather unassuming light wisps of flute, piano and string melody, which yield to little woodwind arabesques and miniature brass fanfares. In Seventh Heaven gathers pace with dance-like motifs which ricochet between oboes and the rest of the band. It pulsates and probes like a mini concerto for orchestra. Towards its conclusion this busy yet strange showpiece morphs into a big Adamsy tune which is as satisfying as its unexpected. Having heard a fair bit of Tómasson over the years I’d never have guessed this was his work.

Canadian-born Veronique Vaka is one of a number of composers from foreign shores who have chosen to make Iceland their home. Lendh is an atmospheric piece which adopts a kind of geophysical approach to translating the local landscape into musical shapes and sounds, a strategy not unlike that to be found on other two discs in the ISO Project (Volume 2, ‘Concurrence’ contains three exceptional examples from Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir and Páll Ragnar Pálsson - review). In the case of Lendh, Vaka conducted analyses of the topography of the rugged Krýsuvík volcanic system in southwest Iceland and converted these into music. Whilst it would be interesting to understand exactly how she did this, the results frankly speak for themselves. Lendh is replete with subterranean rumblings, Ligetian swellings and contractions, imposing brass chords and occasional chinks of glassy light. The harp seems to grow in importance as the piece proceeds. The sound transmits a sense of a planet seeking a settled axis and falling somewhat short. It’s shimmering yet discomfitingly monolithic. Reading reviews of these kind of pieces without hearing the music might suggest that these composers may be working to some kind of generic formula. That is really not the case; each of them sculpt and blend their materials in their own distinctive ways. Vaka is no exception. Lendh is complex and riveting.

By way of a tribute to those that paved the way for the current generation, ‘Occurrence’ (and this ISO series in general) concludes with music by one of the founding fathers of contemporary Icelandic music. Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson is a composer whose name I have known for years but whose music I have never previously encountered. He studied at the Juilliard School and initially wrote in an experimental vein, embracing both dodecaphony and electronic music. He was devastated mid-career by the untimely death of his wife and sought comfort in the bottle; he subsequently fought a lonely battle with alcoholism and withdrew from music for most of the 1970s. He re-emerged in 1980 with a serious yet sublime Adagio for strings, percussion and celesta. Initial seismic rumbles trigger pointed thuds on bass drum and timpani. An inscrutable drone underpins high sustained strings before a transposed repeat of this figure pauses to reveal an agile, gnomic melody on celesta over plucked celli and basses. A more sophisticated reimagining of the opening closes this still-centred, profound little piece. Is this the Icelandic Unanswered Question? I thought so. Its simplicity proves deeply affecting.

Over the last five or so years, Sono Luminus have made a hugely significant contribution to the raised profile of Icelandic music. The ISO series has been the flagship for this endeavour and ‘Occurrence’ constitutes its riveting denouement. ‘Colourful’ is perhaps a lazy word to apply to this repertoire; since much of it emanates from drone and deep bass registers the soubriquet ‘timbrally sophisticated’ is perhaps more apt. Either way, one can see and hear why this music would exude limitless appeal for the technical wizards employed by any audiophile label. The people at Sono Luminus deserve all the plaudits for devising and executing this remarkable and rewarding sequence. Long may their advocacy continue.

Richard Hanlon







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