Leifs: Baldr

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WORKS: Baldr
PERFORMER: Gunnar Gudbjörnsson (tenor); Schola Cantorum, Iceland SO/Kari Kropsu
In the early Nineties the Icelandic composer Jón Leifs was barely represented in the catalogue but, thanks to BIS, his representation is now relatively generous. Leifs studied in Leipzig, graduating in 1921, and remaining in Germany with his Jewish wife and two daughters until he was able to take refuge in Sweden in 1944. Baldr, a ‘choreographic drama’ in two acts, tells of the struggle between Baldr (the son of Odin and the fairest of the gods) and Loki, the personification of evil. It occupied Leifs between 1943 and 1947, in which last year Mt Hekla erupted, prompting the final movement ‘Volcanic Eruption and Atonement’. The scoring is pretty extravagant and includes lurs (primitive horns), anvils, cannons, rocks, metal chains and so on – not to mention organ and carillons. Leifs’s primitivism, the brutal, unremitting pounding rhythms and the crude, unrelieved fortissimos may be too much for some – and I must admit one longs at times for some rhythmic variety and subtlety – but there is also much that is highly imaginative and poetic in feeling. Whether you like him or not, Leifs’s music is distinctive, powerful and as unlike anyone else as the Icelandic landscape is unlike anywhere else. Although its first performance in 1991 under Paul Zukofsky was briefly available on disc, the present account has enormous conviction and the recording quality is amazingly present and vivid. Robert Layton