Wednesday 24 December 2014

Recordings from BIS of smaller scale works by Icelandic composer Jón Leifs are a most welcome addition to the catalogue

The Icelandic composer Jón Leifs (1899-1968) has been well served by BIS Records over recent years with many of his orchestral works being recorded.  Now from BIS comes a re-mastered collection of smaller scale works previously released on the Smekkleysa label.

BIS 2070

The works on this disc are the Scherzo concreto, Op. 58, the Quintet, Op. 50 the Variazioni pastorale, Op. 8 in a version for string quartet and Erfiljod (Elegies), Op. 35, three songs for male choir, mezzo soprano and violin.

Jón Leifs was born in North Iceland but left in 1916 to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, Germany later studying composition with Ferruccio Busoni. Although he studied piano with Robert Teichmüller he decided not to pursue a career as a pianist but to devote his time to conducting and composing.

Before the Second World War Leifs became a successful conductor, directing orchestras in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Norway and Denmark. It was during a tour of Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland with the Hamburger Philharmoniker that he gave the very first symphonic concerts in Iceland. In the 1920s he travelled to Iceland on three occasions to record folk songs among the population in his home county Húnavatnssýsla in North Iceland.

It was piano arrangements of Icelandic folk songs that started Leifs compositional career. From the 1930s he concentrated his efforts on large orchestral works, some of which were not performed until after his death. Most of his output is inspired by Icelandic natural phenomena. In the piece Hekla he depicts the eruption of the volcano Hekla which he witnessed. Dettifoss was inspired by Europe’s most powerful waterfall and the Saga Symphony he musically portrays five characters from the classic Icelandic sagas.

In 1935 Jón Leifs was appointed Musical Director of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service but resigned in 1937, returning to Germany. During the Second World War Leifs and his family lived under constant threat of Nazi persecution due to his wife being Jewish. In 1944, the couple managed to obtain permission to leave Germany and moved to Sweden with their daughters.

In 1945 Leifs moved back to Iceland where he took a keen interest in music education and artists’ rights. This included working for the ratification by Iceland of the Berne Convention, which happened in 1947, and setting up the Performing Rights Society of Iceland (STEF) in 1948. His Requiem is dedicated to the memory of his younger daughter who drowned whilst swimming off the coast of Sweden.

Jón Leifs composed his last work, Consolation, Intermezzo for string orchestra, just weeks before his death in Reykjavík.

The Scherzo concreto, Op. 58 (1964), written for ten instruments, is performed here by the Kammersveit Reykjavíkur (Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Bernharđur Wilkinson. The Moderato opens with a shrill motif for the piccolo thrown around among the players before a melody begins to appear that is also shared around. The music is rather tentative, never totally developing a theme and very much serial in style. Eventually the music gains in momentum before slowing to a sudden end.

Leifs’ Quintet, Op. 50 is played here by members of the Kammersveit Reykjavíkur,   Martial Nardeau (flute and piccolo), Þórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir (viola), Einar Jóhannesson (clarinet), Inga Rós Ingólfsdóttir (cello) and Runar H. Vilbergsson (bassoon).
The Introduzione. Moderato – espressivo e sempre marcato opens quietly with a little theme shared around the players and having much in common with the Scherzo, Op.58. However the music soon settles to a more flowing theme, a gentle melody, slightly rising and falling and with Leifs’ recognisable sound world very much more present, making this a more approachable work.

Funebre: Adagio brings a particularly atmospheric theme that slowly winds its way forward, so distinctively Leifs, beautifully written for this combination of instruments and full of fine little details well brought out by these players. This is a lovely movement full of sensitive writing. The Scherzo: Allegro energico e moderato has an attractive, buoyant theme that moves rhythmically ahead full of joy.

BIS have already recorded the orchestral version of Leifs’ Variazioni pastorale, Op. 8 (BIS-CD-930) but here it is performed in Leifs’ own version for string quartet by Rut Ingólfsdóttir and Sigurlaug Eđvaldsdóttir (violins), Þórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir (viola) and Sigurđur Bjarki Gunnarsson (cello).

In Thema: Adagio e molto cantabile the quartet state the theme from Beethoven’s Serenade Op.8 slowly put through a fine series of variations, Variation 1: L'istesso tempo weaving a richer version and Variation 2: L'istesso tempo, quasi grave shifting the feel of the music harmonically further from its Germanic origins. Variation 3: Allegro brings wilder string chords as Leifs imposes more of his own musical personality on the theme, whilst Variation 4: Allegro scherzando has a rather cheeky rhythmic stance reflecting Icelandic folk tunes style. Variation 5: Moderato brings a mellow chordal section that contrasts well with Variation 6: Moderato alla Marcia with its rhythmic staccato phrases. Variation 7: Allegro molto ma energico continues the feel of Variation but with more bounce and forward drive before Variation 8: Allegro vivace e brillante brings freely flowing string flourishes full of harmonies Beethoven would never have imagined. Variation 9: Quasi grave has a wistful variant, tonally free and flowing with Leifs having thoroughly taken over the original theme before he leads to Variation 10: Finale: Adagio cantabile ma animato  returning us more or less back to the original theme, though here it gains a brilliance it never had before by a change to the major key.

This attractive work is very finely played by this quartet.

The three songs that make up Erfiljod (Elegies), Op. 35 are performed here by a male choir whose members are individually named in the booklet notes but do not appear to have an overall name. They are joined in the last song by Þórunn Guðmundsdóttir (mezzo soprano) and Rut Ingólfsdóttir (violin) and are conducted by Bernharđur Wilkinson)

The choir bring a wonderful dark, smoky atmosphere to Söknuđur (Grief), a reworking of Leifs earlier Requiem.  This is a wonderful song, a setting of texts by Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845). Sorgardans (Dance of Sorrow) has some fine part writing as the texts are overlaid with the rhythm of a chant pervading much of this setting taken from a mixture of sources including Icelandic folk tales. The song builds slowly and rhythmically with some very fine singing from this choir, full of atmosphere, increasing in tempo before a slower coda.

Sjávarljóđ (Sea Poem) also takes its text from Icelandic folk tales as well as other Icelanic writers. The choir opens slowly but with little surges as the violin can be heard. Mezzo-soprano Þórunn Guðmundsdóttir then enters with her lovely direct, pure voice before the choir and violin slowly move the music forward. Þórunn Guðmundsdóttir then comes in over choir and violin which maintains a folk style drone. There are some lovely harmonies and inflections before the music gains in tempo and passion a couple of times before slowing with lovely violin harmonies. The solo violin brings a lovely moment to which the choir, then mezzo-soprano Þórunn Guðmundsdóttir quietly join before leading to another solo violin passage which brings the hushed end to this quite lovely song.

This is a most welcome addition to the Leifs catalogue that shows a different side to Leifs composition. Of all the works here it is the Quintet and Sjávarljóđ that I will most often return to. BIS’ re-mastering of the recordings from 2002, 2004 and 2005 is very fine and there are excellent booklet notes as well as full texts and English translations.


As I publish my last review before the Seasonal Festivities I would like to take the opportunity to wish Seasons’ Greetings to all of my followers and to all the Record Companies and Publishers that have supported me during 2014 and enabled the Classical Reviewer to go from strength to strength.



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