Wednesday 23 January 2019

Reverie - Icelandic art songs

Reverie - Icelandic Art Songs
Songs by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns, Árni Thorsteinson, Gunnsteinn Ólafsson, Hreiðar Ingi Þorsteinsson; Egill Árni Pálsson, Kristinn Örn Kristinsson; Fermata Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 January 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Something of a discovery, a disc of Icelandic art songs ranging from the 19th century to the contemporary

Some time ago I received an email from the Icelandic tenor Egill Árni Pálsson enquiring whether I was interested in his recent disc of Icelandic song. Now, I have to admit that my knowledge of Icelandic music is rather patchy, but whilst in Iceland in 2016 we attended a short recital of Icelandic song at Harpa in Reykjavik [see my article]. Intended for tourists, it was an English language programme designed to introduced music which would be familiar to most Icelandic people. So my interest was piqued.

This disc Leiðsla (Reverie) from Fermata, features Egill Árni Pálsson with pianist Kristinn Örn Kristinsson, along with guests Kristinn Sigmundsson (bass-baritone), Oddur Arnþór Jónsson (baritone), Sophie Marie Schoonjans (harp), Arnar Jónsson (actor), the male voice choir Þrestir, members of Hallgrimskirkja Motet Choir and Pálsson's 6 year old daughter, Júlía Freydís!

The greater part of the disc is given over to songs by Árni Thorsteinson and by Sigvaldi Kaldalón, both of whom trained in Copenhagen, the one in law and the other in medicine, and took music on the side. Both composers, along with  Sigfús Einarsson were involved with setting Icelandic poetry at time when Icelandic poetry and song was an important part of the national liberation movement (Iceland was a Danish dependency until 1918). There are also songs on the disc by other older composers alongside those by more recent composers. If you peruse the biographies of many of the composers on the disc, it is fascinating to see how the oldest generation wrote music on the side, more recent composer such as Sigurður Þórðarson and Markús Kristjánsson studied music in Copenhagen and in Leipzig, and the most recent generation started out at Reykjavik music college  (which was founded in 1930).

We begin with a song by Kaldalóns, the title track, which features Pálsson with Sophie Marie Schoonjans on harp. It is a lovely song, late-Romantic and folk-influenced in style yet what strikes me most was the lovely musical sound of the Icelandic language, and that is true for many of the songs on the disc. The last song on the disc repeats this song with piano this time, except there is no vocal line, instead the actor Arnar Jónsson reads the poem. Between these two, we have a wide variety of song, the folk-influenced late-Romantic style is the most prevalent, though a couple veer a little closer to the salon or the parlour.

Lacking a knowledge of Icelandic folk music it is difficult to say which items on the disc are closest to folk and which closest to art song. The sound world is quite distinctive and very much of its own style and this taster certainly makes me interested in learning more. The two songs by contemporary composer Hreiðar Ingi Þorsteinsson rather stood out for me, very much creating a more modern sound-world with some striking harmonies.

Pálsson is a lyric tenor whose roles vary from Tamino to Rodolfo, and here he sings with a finely focussed lyric tone, superb commitment and a wonderful engagement with the songs, but with great charm also and a nice directness. He really brings out the texts of the song, so even though you don't understand the Icelandic, you gather the importance of the texts. Pianist Kristinn Örn Kristinsson makes a fine partner, whilst the other guests introduce some welcome tonal variety.

This disc is certainly something of a discovery, and helps shed light on a lesser known aspect of the European art song.

Leiðsla (Reverie)
Songs by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns (1881-1946), Árni Thorsteinson (1870-1962), Gunnsteinn Ólafsson (born 1962), Hreiðar Ingi Þorsteinsson (born 1978), Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson (born 1952), Sigfús Einarsson (1877-1939), Emil Thoroddsen (1898-1944), Sigurður Þórðarson (1895-1968), Markús Kristjánsson (1902-1931), Eyþór Stefánsson (1901-1999) and Friðrik Jónsson (1912-1997)
Egill Árni Pálsson (tenor)
Kristinn Örn Kristinsson (piano)
Kristinn Sigmundsson (bass-baritone)
Oddur Arnþór Jónsson (baritone)
Sophie Marie Schoonjans (harp)
Arnar Jónsson (actor)
members of Hallgrimskirkja Motet Choir
Recorded at Víðistaðakirkja in November 2015 and in January, February and September 2016.
FERMATA FM029 1CD [69:04]
Available from Amazon.

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