Friday 6 August 2021

Last Song: two Icelandic performers in an appealing programme mixing contemporary Icelandic music with older masters

Last Song - Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Jórunn Viðar, Karólína Eiríksdóttir, Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, Louis Couperin, Gluck, Ole Bull, Massenet, Hildegard of Bingern Monteverdi; Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir; Sono Luminus

Last Song
- Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Jórunn Viðar, Karólína Eiríksdóttir, Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, Louis Couperin, Gluck, Ole Bull, Massenet, Hildegard of Bingern Monteverdi; Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir; Sono Luminus

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
20th and 21st century Icelandic music intertwines with older repertoire in this intriguing and seductive recital from two Icelandic performers

This lovely disc from two Icelandic performers, violinist Una Sveinbjarnardóttir and pianist Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir, Last Song on Sono Luminus intertwines contemporary music from Icelandic composers Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Jórunn Viðar, Karólína Eiríksdóttir, Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, and Una Sveinbjarnardóttir with arrangements of lyrical pieces by Louis Couperin, Gluck, Ole Bull, Massenet, Hildegard of Bingern and Monteverdi.

The title of the disc refers both to a daily tradition on Icelandic radio Rás 1, where a song, "last song before the news" would be played just before the news hour at noon, but also to the idea of a last song before the apocalypse. Sveinbjarnardóttir describes it as a moment that is "free and full, mindfulness-ish and unaffected by misery, sorrow, regret, shame, anxiety and depression. In my mind it is bright and has a sense of nostalgia."

The result is an appealing disc of shorter pieces which seem linked by Sveinbjarnardóttir and Þorsteinsdóttir's approach, with a clearness of purpose, expressiveness of tone but also a sense of avoiding sentimentality. Sveinbjarnardóttir brings a directness to her violin tone that is almost period at times, yet she never plays period-style all the music is integrated into her and Þorsteinsdóttir's singular vision.

We begin with an atmospheric prelude which the performers have arranged from Louis Couperin, leading to Three Marian Prayers by Atli Heimir Sveinsson (1938-2019) whom Sveinbjarnardóttir describes as a mentor and friend. His studies included Bernd Alois Zimmermann,  Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henri Pousseur,  and Frederic Rzewski, and attendance at Darmstadt summer courses. The three prayers originally set Icelandic texts, one by Sveinbjarnardóttir's grandmother, and Sveinbjarnardóttir performed them with Sveinsson. Each hints at a sort of religious chant or perhaps hymn, yet with lyricism and a feeling of the violinist elaborating over a basic melody. Despite some flowing tempi, the overall feel is melancholy.

After a lovely account of Fritz Kreisler's arrangement of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice we move to the Icelandic Suite by Jórunn Viðar (1918-2017) whom Sveinbjarnardóttir describes as the grand old lady of Icelandic music. Her five-movement suite was written in 1974 for the 2000th anniversary of the inhabitation of Iceland. The music seems to be very folk-inspired with two movements evoking the sort of folk-fiddle playing akin to the Norwegian Hardganger fiddle, yet others are lyrically melancholy and we end with a lively dance. Throughout there is a sense of openness partly from the music's use of open intervals and modal tonality.

A lovely little miniature by Norwegian violinist Ole Bull is followed by the Meditation from Massenet's Thais in an account which makes it seem like a song without words.

Karólína Eiríksdóttir (born 1951) is another of the network of Sveinbjarnardóttir's musical links which support the whole programme, she says 'I met Karólína in the nineties and I used to hang out with Tinna her daughter, at her beautiful house in Álftanes and rehearse Shostakovich, listen to all kinds of music and have philosophical discussions with Kaja who always made us teenagers feel like we were grown-ups.'. Eiríksdóttir's Winter is strongly atmospheric with an intriguing, late-romantic feel to it.

Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson (1925-2005) worked in the theatre and was a leader in experimental music in Iceland. He stopped composing for almost a decade and his later works veer more towards neo-romantic lyricism. In a Dream a strongly romantic song whilst the lyricism of Lullaby is counterpointed by the sound of the toy piano which makes an almost percussive accompaniment.

There follows further Couperin, Aubade Provencal which alternates between the lively and the touching, and then an Ave Maria by Monteverdi where the chant-element links it to other works on the disc. The version of Anima Processional by Hildegard of Bingen is fascinating because Sveinbjarnardóttir plays it unaccompanied and brings in the folk-like Hardanger fiddle elements that I mentioned earlier.

Recording session for Last Song (Photo Dan Shores)
Recording session for Last Song (Photo Dan Shores)
We end with what might be called the title track, Sveinbjarnardóttir's Last Song Before the News where the lyricism gives way, finally, to anxiety as the lyrical folk-elements are overlain with more modern layers including a striking prepared piano.

Louis Couperin (1626-1661) arr. Una Sveinbjarnardóttir & Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir - Unmeasured Prelude No. 7
Atli Heimir Sveinsson (1938-2019) - Three Marian Prayers
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), arr. Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) - Melodie
Jórunn Viðar (1918-2017) - Icelandic Suite
Ole Bull (1810-1880), arr. Una Sveinbjarnardóttir - I Ensomme Stunde

Jules Massenet (1842-1912) - Meditation
Karólína Eiríksdóttir (b. 1951) - Winter
Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson (1925-2005) - In a Dream
Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson - Lullaby
Louis Couperin arr. Fritz Kreisler - Aubade Provencale
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) - Ave Maria
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - Anima Processional
Una Sveinbjarnardóttir (b. 1975) - Last Song before the News
Una Sveinbjarnardóttir (violin)
Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir (piano)
Recorded December 13 - 15, 2019 at Sundlaugin Studio, Mosfellsbær, Iceland
SONO LUMINUS DSL-922948 [51.11]

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