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The Story in Tones
20th Century Historical Recordings from Iceland

Jón NORDAL (b.1926)
Three Sisters for violin and piano (1944) [12:23]
Sonata for violin and piano (1952) [12:31]
Ţórarinn JÓNSSON (1900-1974)
Overture and Double Fugue on the name BACH for solo violin (1925) [14:40]
Humoresque for violin and piano (1927) [2:15]
Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Prelude and fughetta for solo violin [6:22]
Helgi PÁLSSON (1899-1964)
From Six Folk Songs Op 6 for violin and piano - No 5 Poco allegro e scherzando, No 6 Andante (1962) [4:07]
Jórunn VIĐAR (1918-2017)
From Folk Suite in 5 movements for violin and piano - No 3 Folk song, No 4 Air, No 5 Dance (1974) [10:29]
Björn Ólafsson (violin)
Wilhelm Lanzky-Otto, Jón Nordal, Árni Kristjánsson and Jórunn Viđar (piano)
rec. 1947-1974, Icelandic National Broadcasting Service
4TAY CD4063 [63:36]

4Tay has a succinct summary of this disc in its gatefold text: it contains ‘some of the first compositions by some of the first composers, the very first recordings, performed by the first generation of classically trained musicians in Iceland.’ This hinges on two names; violinist Björn Ólafsson, who made all the recordings, and the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service which preserved them in presumably non-commercial form. The result is a sequence of works for violin and piano or solo violin composed between 1925 and 1974 in recordings made between 1947 and 1974.

Ólafsson (1917-1984) studied in Reykjavik at the city’s first music school and then in Vienna, where he was soon to be offered a chair in the Vienna Philharmonic. War intervened and he returned to Iceland but after hostilities finished, he travelled to America to study with Adolf Busch. Thereafter he was the leading violinist in his native country, retaining concertmaster positions with both the Iceland Symphony and the Reykjavik orchestras.

Therefore, not only do we have rare examples of the legacy of Iceland’s pioneering violin soloist, we also have a cross section of the works he performed ranging across the twentieth century. Jón Nordal, still happily with us, I believe, at the time of writing, is represented by two pieces, the first Three Sisters (1944) recorded in 1947. Though there’s a typical boxy studio acoustic, the playing of this folklorically attractive piece in three movements - Ása, Signý and Helga - is nimble, subtle and dextrous. Nordal’s Violin Sonata, here with the composer at the piano, was recorded in 1959 and is full of delicate touches, from the languorous marine opening – light and luminous – and alternations thereafter of serene and powerful outbursts before ending with French élan in the finale. From time to time the recording imparts a rather resinous tone to the violin spectrum but the music conquers all such objections.

He performs two of the six Folk Songs Op 6 by Helgi Pálsson, a composer who did much to mine and promote Icelandic folk melodies. They were well selected; an avuncular charmer contrasted with wistful refined melancholy. We also hear three of the five movements from the Folk Suite by Jórunn Viđar, who accompanies. The first woman in Iceland to study composition, she died at the age of 99 in 2017 and these three little examples from her oeuvre show how finely she could turn folk song into buoyant, open hearted and crisply attractive miniatures.

There are two solo violin works. Ţórarinn Jónsson’s 1925 Overture and Double Fugue on the name BACH is powerfully conceived, rooted in late Romanticism but perhaps owing something to Reger, and even to Ysa˙e. His Humoresque for violin and piano, perhaps appropriately given the name, is somewhat Dvořákian. Meanwhile the other solo work is Jón Leifs’ Prelude and fughetta for solo violin which is a bipartite piece and similarly structured as Jónsson’s though not as expansively. Leifs though sticks closer to Bachian precedent in the Prelude and embraces folk influence in the taut and breezy Fughetta.

I’ve not yet mentioned two of the fine accompanists, but both Wilhelm Lanzky-Otto and Árni Kristjánsson were important figures in their country’s high-level music making.

This is a dedicated and refreshing disc; finely compiled, well annotated and transferred. Its focus is the figure of Björn Ólafsson but it also reflects the support of the national broadcaster and the principles and development of Iceland’s composers through the twentieth century.

Jonathan Woolf

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