The Sono Luminus label has been documenting the work of Icelandic composers and performers on exquisitely produced CDs (some of which also include Blu-Ray audio) for several years now. In 2019, I had cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir on the podcast. In addition to releasing albums devoted to the work of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Halldór Smárason, and Páll Ragnar Pállson, they have put out three discs that feature the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Bjarnason, recording compositions by various Icelandic composers: 2017’s Recurrence, 2019’s Concurrence, and the new conclusion to the series, Occurrence.
Recurrence included pieces by Bjarnason, Thurídur Jónsdóttir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Thorvaldsdóttir, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson. Each of these ran past the 10-minute mark, with Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming” lasting almost 16 minutes.
Jónsdóttir’s “Flow and Fusion,” which opens the CD, comes very gradually into being, bells and hisses and slow swelling chords giving it the feel of a blimp inflating, as vibraphones offer delicate commentary. When the horns and strings roar at the two-minute mark, it’s a call to assemble, but the piece never fully erupts; it’s more of an atmosphere, one that crescendos intermittently but mostly chooses to surround without engulfing. Bjarnason’s three-part, 17-minute “Emergence” suite has a more traditionally orchestral feel, with sections calling out to one another and melodies rising and falling, but it’s the unique touches that give it real power. At the beginning of the second segment, there’s a sound like the respiration of some gigantic animal, as the strings dart around like frightened prey-to-be.
Thorvaldsdóttir has a long-standing relationship with the ISO. They performed her “Aeriality” on her 2014 CD Aerial. “Dreaming,” the composition premiered on Recurrence, is more lush and romantic than “Aeriality,” but it has some of the same qualities, notably a willingness to overwhelm the listener with sudden waves of percussion. Toward the end, the orchestra drops away, leaving a single cellist behind, emitting short bursts and finally a few isolated notes that seem to disintegrate into silence.
Concurrence features pieces by Pálsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson, and Thorvaldsdóttir. It opens with Thorvaldsdóttir’s “Metacosmos,” which starts 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.
The album’s final piece, Pálsson’s “Quake,” is a prelude to “Afterquake,” which Thorsteinsdóttir recorded on her album Vernacular. She discussed both pieces on the BA podcast. 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.”
Occurrence contains the two longest pieces in the trilogy, and the two shortest. The longest of all, Bjarnason’s nearly 24-minute “Violin Concerto,” opens the disc. It begins with gentle whistling, which recurs in the final third, but the long middle stretch features several major eruptions, with the full orchestra thundering and crashing along, strings and horns and tympani battering at the listener’s skull.
Veronique Vaka‘s “Lendh,” the first of her pieces to be recorded by the ISO, begins with massive bowed bass groans and rattling percussion, horns moaning from the back like revenants. It’s quite Thorvaldsdóttir-esque, and has the lost-in-the-forbidding-wilderness quality of much Icelandic music. Elements of light and darkness are balanced beautifully, though, with the strings coming through like rays of light breaking the clouds over an abandoned battlefield as the brass groans from beneath the torn earth. By the end, the 11-minute piece has long abandoned its early shock tactics and become a graceful exercise in dignified restraint.
Haukur Tómasson‘s “In Seventh Heaven” is theatrical to the point of almost being program music. All of the ISO’s by-now trademark sonic gestures, as heard on the three volumes of this series, are present — growling low brass, rattling percussion, stabbing strings, sudden horn fanfares — but there are other sounds unique to this piece, most notably upper-register string trills like small groups of birds chasing each other in the sky.
Thurídur Jónsdóttir‘s “Flutter” features some extremely quiet puffing sounds at first, air barely passing through instruments, as insectile clicks and chirps fill the background. It’s the second-longest piece on the disc, though, at nearly 21 minutes, and by six minutes in the ensemble is roaring and one of the fiercest, most aggressive flute solos you’ll ever hear is stabbing at you. In the composition’s later stretches, we hear what could be field recordings of crickets, and eventually the flute is back again, toned down significantly, floating over soft hand percussion and more gently puffing air.
The disc and the series ends with Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson‘s “Adagio.” Like Vaka, he’s making his ISO debut with this piece, and it’s a perfect conclusion. The piece features unbelievably low, all-encompassing rumbles like you’re lying underneath a train as it passes by with glacial slowness, but those are balanced by the dominant motif — patient, romantic strings that swell like the soundtrack to a military funeral in a Michael Bay movie. It’s one of the shortest pieces in the trilogy, only a little over seven minutes, but it’s an ideal coda to the whole thing.
Before getting Recurrence (and several other Sono Luminus titles), I had no idea about the strength of the Icelandic classical music scene. These three discs are a perfect entry point to a fascinating world of music you’ll want to immerse yourself in like a hot spring.
— Phil Freeman
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