Leifs: Geysir; Trilogia piccola; Trois peintures abstraites; Icelandic Folk Dances; Overture to Loftr; Consolation

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WORKS: Geysir; Trilogia piccola; Trois peintures abstraites; Icelandic Folk Dances; Overture to Loftr; Consolation
PERFORMER: Iceland SO/Osmo Vänskä
This time last year, I welcomed the release of Jón Leifs’s Saga Symphony, a courageous production from BIS which opened our ears to the unique sound-world of this pioneering Icelandic composer. Since then, Tears of Stone, a film about his troubled life in Leipzig, Sweden and Reykjavík, has appeared in Britain in film societies and at the Barbican Centre in London. There is, of course, still more of Leifs’s wayward, stubbornly individual music lurking under the surface, ready to erupt; and now BIS and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra have harnessed the power of Geysir.


Leifs’s characteristic thudding brass and percussion chords rise higher and higher out of slowly shifting harmonic strata, boiling and churning from an inert, inchoate darkness and back into it again in a ten-minute orchestral Prelude. Now we await the great Hekla… This disc shows something of how Leifs’s music fits into the chronology of his life. When Geysir has died down, Osmo Vänskä and the ISO turn back to Leifs’s Op. 1: the Trilogia piccola, a three-movement tone poem, in turn meandering and grandiloquent, in which Leifs is heard searching for his own voice – and a language to be forged with tools acquired in Europe but, uncompromisingly, from the raw material of his own country.

It is a language which, in our eclectic age which lacks any single musical lingua franca, we are uniquely placed to receive without preconception; and it is used confidently in the Trois peintures abstraites, composed in 1955 when Leifs had returned to Iceland and was working as a champion of its burgeoning musical life. Four Icelandic Folk Dances provide an interlude of easier listening before Leifs’s austere final work. Consolation, an intermezzo for string orchestra written in 1968 when he was dying of lung cancer, is a distillation of Leifs’s vocabulary and vision. Those ubiquitous parallel fifths (from the Iceland tvísöngur duets) mesh in astringent cross-relations, striving, it seems, for survival and for an uneasy calm of mind, all passion not yet spent.

A political scientist and civil servant, the Dane Knudåge Riisager was an exact contemporary of Leifs, yet could hardly be more different as a musician. His backdrop was not Nazi Germany but the Paris of the Twenties; and his effervescent ballet Études, inspired by Czerny’s piano studies, is one of the classics of its time. Away from the stage, it is only superficially diverting, though, and I moved on quickly to Qarrtsiluni, a dark, Greenlandic Bolero, ending in a sunburst reminiscent of Nielsen’s Helios Overture.

The Inuit title conveys a sense of ‘waiting for something to burst’: the slow, hypnotic dance builds to ecstasy as the Greenlanders gather on the ice-braes in mid-January to wait for the sun to reappear above the horizon. Just as Leifs’s Geysir is clearly an emblem of his own country’s eruption into national and cultural identity, so Riisager’s work, written in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1938, speaks potently through its own chosen imagery. The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted deftly by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, completes its programme with the early, Nielsenesque concert overture, Erasmus Montanus.

The new-found resonance of the name Einojuhani Rautavaara is a fascinating example of how imaginative and determined marketing can transform a composer from being a hard-working and acclaimed totem of his homeland to an international cult figure. Angels have figured throughout Rautavaara’s life, but never have they so busily peopled the popular consciousness. The subtitle and artwork chosen for Rautavaara’s Seventh Symphony, Angels of Light, certainly came at the right time.

The first work in his ‘Angels’ series, the twenty-minute Angels and Visitations, inhabits Rautavaara’s numinous, exquisitely sentient orchestral sound-world conjuring, through its meticulously heard and beautifully written variations, a vision of beings both alluring and terrifying. These Angels from 1978 are coupled with the near-contemporary Violin Concerto, in which Elmar Oliveira’s violin circles high (echoes of Szymanowski), and sings in whimsical repartee and cadenza above an orchestral diptych of air and earth. The 1995 Isle of Bliss is a lush tone poem inspired by an evocation (in the words of the Finnish poet Aleksis Kivi) of the archetypal island paradise, the focus of Rautavaara’s forthcoming opera to be premiered in Finland this summer.

While tuning in to Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and Erkki-Sven Tüür as the voices of the new Estonia, don’t overlook Tüür’s contemporary Lepo Sumera, less widely marketed until now. He was Estonia’s Minister of Culture in the crucial years from 1988 to 1992, and his music has passed, typically, from serialism to modality and on to a particularly Estonian fusion of styles past and present, static and dynamic.


In Sumera’s case, the emphasis is frequently on the aleatoric – though the whirring of chance activity is predetermined and well-defined in his new work, the firmly and beautifully formed single-movement Fifth Symphony, with its marker-posts of tubular bells, tremolando wing-beats and playful woodwind fugato. Two of Sumera’s earlier works from the Seventies – the masterly and under-performed Music for Chamber Orchestra and the questing, Shostakovich-like In Memoriam – give a tantalisingly brief glimpse into a composing history which deserves to be better known.