Finnur Bjarnason and Örn Magnússon perform Leifs’s Complete Songs

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COMPOSERS: Leifs
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Leifs
WORKS: Complete songs
PERFORMER: Finnur Bjarnason (tenor), Örn Magnússon (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-2170 reissue (2000/01)

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These valuable recordings were first released on the enterprising, innovative yet elusive Icelandic label, Smekkleysa. They’ve been difficult to obtain for a while, so this remastering by the more accessible BIS is welcome. As with all composers, the songs of Iceland’s great musical father-figure, Jon Leifs, provide a revealing microcosm of his creative mind and imagination. We know Leifs primarily through his huge, explosive orchestral works. But, like Iceland itself, the music of Leifs is by no means all geysers and volcanoes.

There’s a link to the composer’s oft-quoted Saga Symphony here in three songs taken from the masterwork and from the sagas which inspired it. And both the robust tenor Finnur Bjarnason and his feisty pianist Örn Magnússon take on fearlessly the determinedly original language of Leifs, with its harmonic and metrical lurches and sudden truncations, and its austere word-setting. These unique qualities appear later in the recital, in the all but orchestral setting of the great 13th-century poem, Hrafnsmál (Words of the Raven).

But there are other sides to Leifs as well. His Bartók-like ethnographic work yielded precious and vanishing Icelandic folk songs, like the beautiful, and beautifully metamorphosed lullaby, Sofdu, unga ástin mín; and verses, too, about verse-making itself, in Ríma. And, last of all, there is the painful Torrek, a grief-filled setting from Egil’s Saga, composed after the death by drowning of Leifs’s beloved daughter.

All this comes with fine translations; and there is an excellent contextual essay by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson.

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Hilary Finch