This latest CD in the BIS Jón Leifs series
demonstrates, if such were needed, that news of the demise of the classical
recording industry is wildly exaggerated. As long as record companies
continue to research the archives for hidden masterpieces - and 'masterpieces'
is no exaggeration for the music to be found on this disc - and serves
them up with such loving care and attention as BIS has done here, then
there is plenty of hope for the future of the medium, whether it be
in the form of downloads or physical music carriers.
For those new to Leifs, a brief introduction is called
for. Born in Iceland in 1899, he became an avid reader at an early age,
particularly the Sagas and other Old Icelandic poetry. As a patriot
he was moved by poetic descriptions of Iceland's struggle to free itself
from Danish domination. As a romantic he was deeply affected by descriptions
of Iceland's dramatic Nordic landscape. Both strands appear regularly
in his vocal works and his musical style is strongly descriptive and
pictorial. The quality of the music, however, is never subjugated by
the subject matter and Leifs' voice is unquestionably his own. Rarely
did I find myself reminded of other composers when listening to this
The CD is entitled Hafís (Drift Ice)
which, at 17.49, is the longest work featured here and was composed
shortly before Leifs' death. The text is from the late romantic poet
Einar Benediktsson (1864 - 1940) and falls very much into the 'landscape-poem'
variety. The choral part is tortuous in the extreme with many wide leaps
at pianissimo. This perhaps explains why it was not performed until
1999, in preparation for this recording. A succession of slow passages
leading to ferocious climaxes occur one after the other, each more dramatic
than the last, until the words 'bursting blockades of waters dashing'
are reached and the music subsides into a final release of calm.
The earliest work, the relatively well-known Lullaby,
for mezzo and orchestra shows how consistent Leifs' style remained throughout
his composing career. His music is almost always underpinned by use
of the bass instruments - tympani (which dominate in Hafis),
cellos and basses, bassoons, trombones and the low percussion. Above,
the strings and higher wind ebb and flow with wide rhythmic variety
and subtle use of colour and timbre. This is particularly effective
in Lullaby where the words 'Everywhere silence flows, Sun slips
into the sea' are accompanied by a magical liquidity of texture.
The Lay of Gudrun falls into the historical/political
category. Leifs chose his texts from Eddic poetry as his personal reaction
to the potential occupation of Iceland by Germany in 1940, when Denmark
and Norway had already fallen. The poem describes Gudrun's stoic grief
at the death of her husband at the hands of her own brothers. Only when
her companions tell of their own griefs can Gudrun break down and make
a passionate homage to her husband and demonstrate her anger at what
might have been. As an allegory of the fears felt by the Nordic peoples
and the moral issues raised by questions of resistance, Leifs' warning
in music could hardly have been more apposite. The music is suitably
dark - a truly intense eleven minutes. The three soloists sing magnificently.
Night makes use of the old Icelandic form of
singing in fifths and the meeting of two lovers at night is calmly described
by the tenor and baritone in this rather ancient form. But Leifs has
a trick up his sleeve and the musical description (for orchestra alone)
of the consummation of the lovers comes entirely unexpectedly, with
a passionate climax (including flutter tongued flutes) which is genuinely
Leifs had planned a trilogy of Edda oratorios
- by far his most ambitious project - but after the first was finished
he realised that he might never be able to complete all three parts.
In 1963 he wrote two short orchestral works, Fine 1 and 2
which would provide an acceptable conclusion should he die 'with a work
unfinished - even in mid-bar'. Fine 1 is an angry, fist-shaking
and abrasive work of great power with powerful use, again, of low brass
This twelve-minute masterpiece could hardly conclude
a CD of such importance without leaving a slightly lopsided view of
Leifs the man, however brilliant the music. BIS has wisely repeated
the short Lullaby at the very end.
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra performs superbly under
the excellent Anne Manson. (Yet another fine female conductor here makes
a further strong case for a major international orchestra to employ
a woman as Music Director). The recording is beautifully achieved and
there are first-class notes and translations.