Leifs: Songs (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Leifs
LABELS: Smekkleysa
WORKS: Songs (complete)
PERFORMER: Finnur Bjarnason (tenor)Örn Magnússon (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SMK 20 (distr. Harmonia Mundi)
Jón Leifs (1899-1968), the great Bartók-figure of Icelandic music, has been splendidly championed by BIS over the last decade. But much of the composer’s work remains little-known and less performed outside Iceland. Now the Icelandic label Smekkleysa is making up for lost time.

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In this handsomely designed folder of a double-disc set, enhanced by its notes, texts and well-selected translations, all of Leifs’s songs are celebrated, many of them in world-premiere recordings. Less is often more with Leifs: the instrumental, chamber and vocal music provides insights into his creative imagination sometimes obscured by his gargantuan orchestral works. But those familiar with the Saga Symphony will enjoy a close-focus on three of its songs, their syllables set spear-straight and strong. And the Op. 24 Songs from the Sagas complement these powerfully, giving new meaning to the word Heldentenor!

And it’s the feisty tenor of Guildhall-trained Finnur Bjarnason which takes the strain. He and the fine Icelandic pianist Örn Magnússon possess both the sensitivity and the fearlessness to penetrate and project music which, to the newcomer, is often baffling in its stubborn refusal to do anything but plough its own furrow.

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For those only beginning to explore this territory, the many wonders of this anthology – the early folksong metamorphoses; a ‘Lullaby’ for Leifs’s drowned daughter; a hauntingly melismatic setting of Halldór Laxness – will make quite some mark. And those already familiar with Leifs’s relationship to Iceland’s own verbal and musical languages will leave with a more profound understanding of both. Hilary Finch