Thursday, 7 March 2013

Eerie and mysterious - choral works of Haflidi Hallgrimsson - CD review

Haflidi  Hallgrimsson is an Icelandic composer who is now based in Scotland. He was principal cellist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra before moving to composing full time, so  not surprisingly music for strings features strongly in his output. But this new disc from the Schola Cantorum Reykjavik, conductor Hordur Askelsson, on download only label Resonus Classics shows the growing importance of choral music in Hallgrimsson's output. Hallgrimsson trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London, studying composition privately with Elizabeth Lutyens, Alan Bush and Peter Maxwell Davies.

Haflidi Hallgrimsson
Haflidi Hallgrimsson
Hallgrimsson's writing for choir is generally homophonic, but never simplistic or straightforward. Melody lines are frequently rather expressionistic, though chant-influenced melodies are present as well. His harmonies have the bitter-sweetness of bitonality, both major and minor together. The sound is clear and open, but with a healthy dissonance which provides character. That character is evocatively eerie, haunting and mysterious. In all the works on this disc Hallgrimsson creates a sound world which fascinates and draws you in. The works are all recent ones, with the older pieces being present in recent revisions.

The disc opens with Rura, rura barni, an arrangement of a traditional lullabye from the Faroe Islands. It is written for choir and trumpet and dedicated to Hordur Askelsson, the conductor of the Schola Cantorum Rykjavik. The musical texture is lovely and clear, with the sound of the language resonating. A hauntingly beautiful piece and rather unsettling.

Myrtuskogur was written as a memorial to Hallgrimsson's late sister. It is a setting of a poem by the 4th century Latin poet Ausonius set for choir, harp and percussion. Harmony is denser here, with a sweetness which combines with an edgy chromaticism in the harmony.

The author Baldur Oskarsson (born 1932) is an old friend of the composer's and Niunda Stund sets his texts. It is a three movement piece meditating on Christ's passion (the name translates as the Ninth Hour). The result is highly evocative as Hallgrimsson follows Oskarsson's text and illuminates it with clear but harsh harmony, expressive melody and rhythmic undertow.

Endurkoma is more declamatory. This is another religious inspired text, an image of Christ's return at the end of the world. The text was written by the Icelandic poet Hannes Petursson (born 1931). This is the revised version, compressed and shortened from an original which involved four double basses and percussion as well as choir.

Sonhenda LXXVIII is a setting of a Michelangelo sonnet, which Hallgrimsson composed in memory of the harpsichordist Helga Ingolfsdottir. Hallgrimsson has cut the text, so that the result is quietly mournful without dwelling on death. A very evocative, partsong-like piece.

Your Image sets two lines from poems by Salvatore Quasimodo (1901 - 1968) and is dedicated to one of Hallgrimsson's former teachers and the woman both composers stayed with when studying at the Royal Academy of Music, in London. Hallgrimsson uses his now familiar expressionist melody over clear but dissonant harmonies. The piece is rather more complex and subtle than it might seem at first. It is a lament, veering to anger in moments and it develops in interesting ways with drama and changes of texture.

The final piece Lofid Gud I hans helgidomi was composed for the Sailors Sermon, a service held every May in Reykjavik honouring the North Atlantic fisherman. The text combines a 16th century translation of a psalm with verses by a former fisherman, Hallgrimur Petursson from his 17th century hymnal.

Schola Cantorum Reykjavik
Schola Cantorum Reykjavik
The original work was intended for a single performance in 1996. It was revised extensively for the recording. The work mixes declamatory, chant-like choral phrases with ornamental textures from organ trumpet and harp, creating a complex weave of material.

Schola Cantorum Reykjavik was founded by Hordur Askelsson ins 1996. The group performs a wide range of repertoire and was nominated for the Nordic Music Prize in 2007. Their performances on this disc are superbly exemplary. Hallgrimsson's music asks for precision and control, and the choir provide this in spades, ensuring the perfect tuning and placement of Hallgrimsson's chords. I don't imagine that this music is easy to sing, even if it is not particularly showy. But on this disc Schola Cantorum Rykjavik under Hordur Askelsson's direction provide a fine technical performance, but more than that they create a wonderfully evocative and expressive atmosphere. Eerie, haunting and mysterious certainly, but stunning as well.

The disc is available for download only. The CD booklet comes with a good explanatory essay, plus texts and translations (except for one item which is still in copyright). 

Haflidi Hallgrimsson (born 1941) - Rura, rura barni (2010) [4.07]
Haflidi Hallgrimsson (born 1941) - Myrtuskogur (1993) [9.31]
Haflidi Hallgrimsson (born 1941) - Niunda Stund (1992/2006) [10.16]
Haflidi Hallgrimsson (born 1941) - Endurkoma (2012) [4.24]
Haflidi Hallgrimsson (born 1941) - Sonhenda LXXVIII (2010) [4.06]]
Haflidi Hallgrimsson (born 1941) - Your Image (1986/2010) [10.15]
Haflidi Hallgrimsson (born 1941) - Lofid Gud I hans helgidomi (1996/2012) [9.17]
Bjorn Steinar Solbergsson (organ)
Elisabet Waage (harp)
Asgeir H. Steingrimsson (trumpet)
Steef van Oosterhout (percussion.
Schola Cantorum Reykjavik
Hordur Askelsson (conductor)

Recorded in the Hallgrimskirka, Reykjavik, Iceland during February 1008, February 2011 and March 2012.

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