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Leifs: Edda - Bäumer

Leifs: Edda - Bäumer

BIS  BIS-SACD-1350

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical


Jón Leifs: Edda, Part 1 - The Creation of the World

Gunnar Guobjörnsson (tenor)
Bjarni Thor Kristinsson (bass-baritone)
Schola Cantorum
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Hermann Bäumer (conductor)


Few composers have been as consistently preoccupied with their national origins as Jón Leifs, who only found his calling as a composer when he encountered a collection of Icelandic folk music.

From the very beginning, Iceland, its music and myths, its landscape and climate furnished him with the material for almost all of his compositions. And from the very beginning Leifs knew that he wanted to create a great oratorio using texts from the Edda, Iceland's national treasure. He started work on the libretto in 1930, and soon decided that the theme of the first section would be The Creation of the World. It wasn't until 1935, however, that he found himself in a position to start composing the music of Edda I, completing it in 1939. Largely due to the highly difficult choral writing, the work was never performed in its entirety during Leifs’ lifetime. Indeed the first complete performance only took place in 2006, in conjunction with the recording of the present disc.

Disheartened by the lack of success, Leifs went on to other works, but in 1951 he returned to the subject and began work on Edda II. He completed it in 1966, but at his death two years later Edda III was left unfinished. Edda I consists of thirteen movements, each of which describes part of the creation according to Nordic mythology. As the headings of the individual movements suggest – Sea, Earth, Heaven, Sun, etc. – Leifs’ main concern is the depiction of nature. He achieves this in music which carries the hallmarks of the Leifs style, such as a liberal use of parallel fifths and irregular metric patterns.

The scoring is among Leifs’ most colourful and inspired, including the composer’s signature Nordic lurs and an extended percussion section. This landmark in Icelandic music is performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum choir under the baton of Hermann Bäumer – a constellation that last came together on disc on the highly acclaimed Viking’s Answer, the previous Leifs’ release on BIS.

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PCM recording

Recorded in October 2006 at Hallgrím’s Church, Reykjavík, Iceland

Recording producer: Ingo Petry

Sound engineers: Jens Braun, Matthias Spitzbarth

Digital editing: Matthias Spitzbarth

Surround mix: Jens Braun, Ingo Petry

Recording equipment: Neumann microphones; Stagetec Truematch microphone preamplifier and high resolution A/D converter; MADI optical cabling; Yamaha 02R96 digital mixer; Sequoia Workstation; Pyramix DSD Workstation; B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers; STAX headphones

Executive producer: Robert Suff

24/44.1
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Review by John Miller - March 23, 2008

Almost single-handedly, BIS have been issuing an edition of Jón Leifs, an Icelander who trained in Leipzig. His life-time (1889-1968) saw several major revolutions in music, but he was steadfast in his Nationalist style and devotion to Icelandic folksong.

This is the first SACD in the Leifs series, and appropriately features the first complete performance of a truly epic work. In the 1930s, Leifs set about compiling a three-part oratorio based on the Edda, a collection of manuscripts containing poems and tales of Norse mythology, many of which now reside in the Arni Magnusson Institute in Reykjavik. Leifs saw this project as an antidote to Wagner's Ring, seeing that as impossibly romantic and a gross misrepresention of the Nordic legends and their artistic importance. Only the first two parts were completed before his death, but he never heard even the first part, except for a few performances of excerpts. The demands made on the performers of the day were enormous. Singers were stretched at the extremes of their range, complex rhythms required great precision and the sheer scale of the orchestra, with its bronze lur horns and battery of percussion, including clashing rocks, daunted all impresarios. Such resources were not then available in Iceland, let alone elsewhere.

This first part of the projected trilogy deals with no less than the creation of the world and its gods. It opens with Leifs' depiction of the void, captured between an almost inaudible 20 second deep bass note and a celestial violin harmonic, before two peremptory chords shatter the near-silence. These chords bind the sections of the oratorio together and introduce each one.

The Eddic creation myth narration uses a potent mixture of poetry, symbolism, sex and violence. Leifs captures this in orchestral depictions of the earth, sea, sky, day and night with an orchestral mastery and originality which is often breathtakingly elemental. The texts are sung to adaptations of Icelandic folksongs and speech rhythms, and some of the male chorus chants are strikingly reminiscent of those in Sibelius' Kullervo, based on the Kalevala. There are some leavening humorous moments, such as the depiction of clumsy giants, who stomp comically about to squealing piccolos and deep brass/woodwind growls.

Despite its overtly episodic nature, the piece has a symphonic sweep and sense of inevitable development. There is even a slow movement, the longest and perhaps the most intense of all, a darkly ruminating tone poem representing the seemingly interminable Icelandic winter night, with a skirl of pipes heralding dawn and the arrival of Spring. The scherzo, entitled 'All men are not equally wise' is a deliciously sardonic view of the nature of common folk on the new Earth.

Palms must go to all the performers. The soloists do a heroic job with their challenging parts, and the chorus manage to sound tireless, despite punishing stretches at the limits of their ranges. All this rhythmic and emotional complexity is held together magnificently by conductor Hermann Bäumer. SACD was made for works like this, and the BIS recording in Reykjavik's monumental Hallgrím's Church has a wide and deep perspective and a huge dynamic range. The crucial deep bass parts are well-represented.

There won't be many live performances of Edda Part 1, and this first one, with its associated recording, is clearly a landmark in Iceland's musical history. The music is inspiring and thought-provoking, lingering in the mind long after listening. It is potentially a magnificent film score, and were there a modern Eisenstein about, he might be tempted to snap it up and create the visual effects which Leifs conjures so aptly in music. An unqualified recommendation.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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