Tuesday 1 March 2022

Iceland: The Eternal Music - Graham Ross and the choir of Clare College explore the contemporary music of Iceland

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson, Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson, Sigurður Sævarsson, Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Jón Ásgeirsson, Snorri Sigfús, Jón Leifs; Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, the Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross; Harmonia Mundi

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson, Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson, Sigurður Sævarsson, Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Jón Ásgeirsson, Snorri Sigfús, Jón Leifs; Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, the Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross; Harmonia Mundi

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An exploration of Icelandic music from the last 50 years, centred on the approachable yet moving Requiem from Sigurður Sævarsson

On this new disc from Graham Ross, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Dmitri Ensemble on Harmonia Mundi, they survey Icelandic music, presenting twelve works by nine composers, six living and three from the 20th century, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson, Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson, Sigurður Sævarsson, Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Jón Ásgeirsson, Snorri Sigfús, and Jón Leifs, plus an arrangement of a work by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós.

The album mixes sacred and secular, music for choir and music for strings, but the centre-piece is Sigurður Sævarsson's Requiem, written in 2016 and here receiving its first recording. Whilst the repertoire might seem disparate and varied, in fact much of it has a commonality of sound-world; Graham Ross in his booklet note describes it as "built on slow-moving sonorous textures, often chordal in nature and underpinned by harmonic drones, and frequent use is made of ancient texts, reflecting the deep heritage of Iceland’s native language."

We begin with Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Ad genua for solo soprano (Carolyn Sampson), choir and strings, written for the American choir The Crossing for a project that got contemporary composers to create a response to the cantatas from Dietrich Buxtehude's 1680 Membra Jesu Nostri.  Using a text (in English) by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir, Thorvaldsdottir creates a texture which sets the lyrical solo voice again a complex and atmospheric texture for choir and instruments. The sound world hovers between the uplifting melodic line and the slow, complex and darker harmonies, to create something rather striking.

Heyr himna smiður sets a 13th century Icelandic poem with 20th century composer Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson creating something movingly hymn-like, tonal yet with a very particular voice. And this sense of gentle prayerfulness imbues the next few works on the disc. Kvöldvers (Evening Prayer) is a setting of words by contemporary poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson by Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson, whilst Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson's Ave Maria, has intriguing hints in its harmonies especially the way he uses the harmony in blocks. Thorvaldsdottir's Heyr þú oss himnum á is a setting of a 16th century Icelandic text, and she creates something darkly atmospheric with hints of ancient harmonies. All the voices are written for in their lower registers, which gives the work its particular sound world.

Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College gave the UK premiere of Sigurður Sævarsson's Nunc Dimittis in 2017, and it was the subsequent friendship with Sævarsson that encouraged Ross to explore the repertoire on this disc. In 2018, the choir gave the premiere of Sævarsson's Magnificat which Ross had commissioned as a companion to the Nunc Dimittis. The Magnificat is a contemplative work, and Sævarsson sets up repeated rhythmic motifs in the choir over which he sets a lovely, slowly unfolding melody. Sævarsson's use of decorative ornaments in the melody links, to my ears, to James MacMillan's use of Gaelic singing in his choral music, a sort of cultural cross-fertilisation that is fascinating.

Atli Heimir Sveinsson's Haustvísur til Máríu (Autumn Verses to the Virgin) sets text by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, an Icelandic scholar of Old Norse literature. In fact, Sveinsson studied with Stockhausen but here he writes in a lyrical vein. Again there is something prayerful and hymn-like about the music, along with that certain atmosphere that immediately strikes the ear as Nordic.

Jón Ásgeirsson's Hjá lygnri móðu sets a text by Halldór Kiljan Laxness who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The text is a love poem, and Ásgeirsson's music is busy and perhaps folk-influenced, with a lovely melody which reaches a very touching ending. Snorri Sigfús' Afmorsvísa also sets a love poem but this time using an 18th century Icelandic text. Lively and folk-influenced, the sound world seemed to evoke music such as Estonian composer Veljo Tormis' St John's Day Song.

Jón Leifs was arguably Iceland's most famous 20th century composer. A somewhat troubled figure, his music has however loomed large and Leifs' Requiem (using Icelandic folk poetry) was one of the inspirations behind Sævarsson's Requiem on this disc. Here we hear Leifs' Hinsta kveðja (Elegy) for string orchestra, written in 1961. Tonal yet intense, in this rather striking piece Leif's uses his slow moving string lines to create an atmosphere that develops into something rich and profound.

Sævarsson wrote his Requiem in 2016. For unaccompanied choir, it uses the familiar Latin texts - Introit, Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Lux Aeterna, In Paradisum. It was written in memory of his father, who died in 2008. In each Sævarsson sets up a series of repeating rhythmic motifs over drones, and uses these as the backdrop for his melodies. The result is striking yet immediately accessible, and what is fascinating is the remarkable variety Sævarsson introduces to the work within these parameters. There are times, such as in the Kyrie, when the result is positively hypnotic. In the Sanctus, Sævarsson uses those folk-inspired ornaments (twiddly bits) that I mentioned earlier, whilst the multiplicity of layers in the Benedictus creates a truly striking texture, and this movement is surprisingly substantial. The Agnus Dei is rather contemplative, and for the Lux Aeterna soprano soloist Carolyn Sampson returns with an austerely striking line over a drones. 

We finish with another work for string orchestra. Fljótavík by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós was named for a bay in Iceland. Guy Button arranged the piece for 12 Ensemble and it is his arrangement that the Dmitri Ensemble (with Button in the second violins) plays here. Rather lovely and very effective.

I suspect that few of the composers on this disc will be particularly familiar to listeners, and even Anna Thorvaldsdottir is probably better known for her large scale orchestral pieces than for these smaller choral ones. The result is to introduce us to an entrancing sound world. Often highly approachable, but creating sophisticated effect. Ross and his choir are on top form throughout the disc, and I am sure the the repertoire will be giving choral directors all over the country some interesting ideas.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir (born 1977) - Ad Genua [10:38]
Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013) - Heyr himna smiður [2:59]
Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson (born 1965) - Kvöldvers [1:46]
Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson (born 1952) - Ave Maria [3:44]
Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Heyr þú oss himnum á [4:16]
Sigurður Sævarsson (born 1963) - Magnificat [6:09]
Atli Heimir Sveinsson (1938-2019) - Haustvísur til Máríu [3:20]
Jón Ásgeirsson (born 1928) - Hjá lygnri móðu [3:14]
Snorri Sigfús (born 1954) - Afmorsvísa [1:39]
Jón Leifs (1899-1968) - Hinsta kveðja [8:34]
Sigurður Sævarsson - Requiem [28:00]
Sigur Rós, arr Guy Button - Fljótavík [4:20]
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
The Dmitri Ensemble (leader Stephanie Gonley)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Recorded July 2021, All Hallows Church, London

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