Viðar, Ísólfsson: Icelandic Works for the Stage - Gamba
Chandos CHSA 5319
Classical - Orchestral
Works by Viðar, Ísólfsson
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Rumon Gamba (conductor)
Páll Ísólfsson was the first director of the Reykjavík Music School, which opened in 1930. Like other musicians, he was forced by the lack of opportunity in Iceland to study abroad but, unlike others, he was able to return and work as the Organist at Reykjavík Cathedral to support his activities as a composer. His music for the early Ibsen play The Feast at Solhaug, performed in 1943 in Norwegian on Norway’s National day, was his theatrical début. This was followed in 1945 by the more ambitious score for Úr Myndabók Jónasar Hallgrímssonar.
Jórunn Viðar started her advanced training at Ísólfsson’s conservatory, followed by studies in Berlin and then at the Juilliard School. In New York she met a fellow Icelander and dance student, Sigríður Ármann. The two of them collaborated on Eldur (Fire), which would be the first ballet for the new National Theatre in Reykjavík, presented in May 1950. Their second collaboration for the National Theatre, Ólafur Liljurós, opened in 1952 and is based on a traditional Nordic legend.
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Review by Graham Williams - March 22, 2023
Like most Nordic countries Iceland has a rich cultural heritage, especially in art and literature. But while folk music in the country has a centuries old tradition, Iceland composers working in the western classical style did not emerge until the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Some, like the two composers featured on this attractive SACD entitled ‘Icelandic Works for the Stage’, studied abroad in order to establish their careers. Much of the fine music written by these artists has yet to reach concert audiences, but thanks to such imaginative recordings as this we can fully assess their achievements.
The first of the two works featured here is by Páll Ísólfsson (1893 – 1974) who like some other European composers for example, Grieg, Delius and Janáček went to study in Leipzig. He eventually became the first director of the Reykjavík Music School. ‘Veislan á Sólhaugum’ is a five-movement suite of incidental music for a 1943 production of an early Ibsen play ‘The Feast at Solhaug’. Ísólfsson’s, music is melodic and instantly engaging in a folk style reminiscent of many familiar and less familiar Scandinavian composers. It is hard to believe it dates from 1943 as it could easily have been written more than half a century earlier.
‘Úr Myndabók Jónasar Hallgrímssonar’ is scored for String Orchestra. It dates from 1945 and was written for a celebration of the poet Jónas Hallgrimsson on the centenary his death. As in the previous work the music is unassuming and beautifully played by strings of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. There appears to be clear quote of ‘La Marseillaise’ in the ‘March’ (tr.8) but no indication is given in the liner notes as to the reason for its presence.
The two ‘Ballets for Orchestra’ by Jórunn Viðar (1918 -2017) are arguably of much greater musical interest.
After completing her training at the Reykjavík Music School, Viðar continued her studies in Berlin and then at the Juilliard School in New York in the 1940s. There she met a fellow Icelander and dance student, Sigríður Ármann and on their return to their homeland they collaborated on the two works heard here.
‘Eldur’ (Fire) is a thrilling nine minute orchestral tour-de-force that brilliantly encapsulates the many aspects of fire. Of it, the composer once said “It was composed with the dance in mind. If you think of fire, countless images come to mind: flaming, bonfire, flash, torch, flare embers, ash.”
The scenario for the ballet ‘Ólafur Liljurós’, that completes this programme, is based on an old ballad found in many Nordic lands. The liner notes by Paul Griffiths helpfully detail the action of the 28 minute ballet. The story of the unfortunate hero’s encounter with four elf-maidens is graphically portrayed in Viðar’s beautifully orchestrated score. The music is sometimes heroic in character, often mysterious and peppered with entrancing waltzes. It is played with considerable panache and commitment, by these fine Icelandic musicians splendidly directed by Rumon Gamba.
Sound engineer Jonathan Cooper and his colleagues have achieved a bright and vivid sound quality in the clean acoustic of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s home, Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik.
This is an enterprising release that is definitely worth investigating, and it is to be hoped that Chandos will give us more from the many under represented Icelandic composers.
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