Concurrence, the new album by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason, features new pieces by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Páll Ragnar Pálsson. It’s the second volume in a trilogy, following 2017’s Recurrence, and was recorded at Harpa studio in Reykjavik, Iceland earlier this year, with the orchestra positioned in a circle around Bjarnason. As always with releases on the Sono Luminus label, it’s beautifully recorded and immersive—the physical package includes both a CD and an audio Blu-Ray, with various surround sound options I haven’t got the equipment to enjoy. (Buy it from Amazon.)
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The album opens with Thorvaldsdóttir’s “Metacosmos.” It begins with low groans, like we’re inside a whale humming to itself, but ominous signs are on the horizon early; big bass outbursts arrive without warning, like someone slapped you in the side of the head, and the violins hover like vultures. There’s a moment about one-third of the way through the piece where almost everything falls away except for some soft sweeping sounds, like a factory at midnight. That’s followed by a pastoral interlude, but it doesn’t last long. The bass slaps return, and low strings and tympani create an ominous, war-movie rumble and boom as violins and flutes slide back and forth like soldiers crawling through mud, hoping not to be seen. Eventually, though, the drums fall away, leaving a cloud of strings like smoke drifting through a bombed-out forest.
Tómasson’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” lightens the mood substantially. The piano ripples along, the strings and flutes traveling in its wake like birds following a boat out to sea. At times, the repetitive striking of keys brings to mind Nik Bärtsch, but this music combines the Zenlike minimalism of his work with a romanticism, and a bigness, that makes me think of Gustav Mahler. It’s not as grandiose as that, though: it doesn’t sprawl across two CDs like one of his symphonies, though at 17 minutes it is the longest thing here.
There’s not much to say about Sigfúsdóttir’s “Oceans,” sadly. It’s pretty enough, a series of swooning waves of strings, like sunlight coming over the horizon. But there’s just not that much there. It sounds like the score to some mid-20th century movie about a white, upper middle class family going through emotional drama in a white, upper middle class American suburb. It doesn’t even feel designed to hold your attention, and it doesn’t.
The final piece, Pálsson’s “Quake,” is a prelude to “Afterquake,” which cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir recorded on her album Vernacular, which was released earlier this year. (She discussed “Afterquake” and “Quake” on an episode of the Burning Ambulance podcast in June.) While “Afterquake” was a solo piece, “Quake” is written for the full orchestra, with Thorsteinsdóttir featured. It brackets the album extremely well, serving as a sort of mirror image to “Metacosmos.” The two pieces share a few qualities—low groans and sudden slams, insistent percussion, a generally threatening atmosphere—but “Quake” is slightly more monochromatic than “Metacosmos.” It doesn’t move through telegraphed stages the way the Thorvaldsdóttir piece does, and there is a lead voice. Thorsteinsdóttir’s cello is an integral part of the ensemble at first, but in the piece’s final third she’s spotlit, utterly alone at first, then slowly embraced and surrounded by the rest of the strings, with some low horns coming around, too. It has a false ending that’s quite surprising—it fades out and you think, That can’t be it, right?, and then there’s just enough of a coda to resolve things “properly.”
Sono Luminus has been doing an incredible job of documenting the work of a variety of Icelandic composers and Nordic ensembles over the past few years. Concurrence is just the latest in a string of releases, every one of which is essential listening for any fan of modern chamber and/or orchestral music.