Sigurbjörnsson Skálholt Mass
Iceland is a country of tremendous musical richness, as those who have followed at least in part the posthumous success of Jón Leifs and the very much current success of Björk will be aware. These four discs from Smekkleysa complement what one might justifiable describe as those two extremes, in highly varied fashion. Hródmar Sigbjörnsson was born in 1958. After his studies in Iceland, he worked in Holland with Joep Straesser, and that country’s vivacious artistic postmodernity seems to have rubbed off on him. Atli Ingólfson writes, in his notes, of Sigbjörnsson’s music as ‘an entirely personal mosaic’, and that is a very fair description of this Mass. It mixes an almost-Stravinskyan dryness of utterance (parts of the Gloria in fact suggest The Soldier’s Tale) with an exuberant folkiness (notably in the Introitus) and the sort of lush transparence that one associates with the work of Gavin Bryars. It’s altogether an intriguing work, and beautifully performed by an excellent trio of solo singers and the Caput Ensemble.
‘Icelandic Spring Poem’ is an anthology of Icelandic choral music, spanning a wide chronological spectrum, and as such would make a very good introduction to the repertoire, especially given that it is so excellently sung by the ever-industrious Hamrahlíd Choir. Much of this music is imbued with a dark-hued romanticism, often suggesting stylistic parallels with English choral music, but a number of more recent pieces explore different territory. Among the most impressive of these are Hjálmar Ragnarsson’s April Night Song, displaying a very unusual and highly developed harmonic sense, and using classically ‘modernist’ elements within a broadly lyrical style, and Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir’s Sleepless Night and Summer rain sings out, both of which recall some of Rautavaara’s choral writing, but which leave no doubt as to the composer’s own voice.
Rúnarsdottir’s music also appears on ‘Tapestry of Dreams’, a remarkable anthology of songs by Icelandic women composers, sung by Ásgerdur Júníusdóttir, whose limpid, incisively powerful voice I can hardly wait to hear again. The music she has chosen also ranges over a large chunk of Icelandic history, and the quality is uniformly excellent. There are some provocatively proud words in the booklet notes – I sincerely hope that Ragnhildur Gísladóttir does not prove to be the Icelandic Tina Turner, so much more interesting is her work before the attainment of that ambition – but they do cover the unexpected variety of the work of the 18 (!) women composers here represented.
Björk’s music makes an inevitable appearance (a rather incantatory piece, its ceremonial quality being enhanced by the use of a pipe organ), but the songs by Matreinsdóttir (born in 1978 – the youngest composer here), Blöndal and Örnólfsdóttir are just as accomplished and interesting. For me the two most impressive works are those by Jónsdóttir (now resident in Italy) and the aforementioned Rúnarsdottir. Both are names to watch, as is that of Ásgerdur Júníusdóttir.
Finally, Raddir returns us to the roots of Icelandic music, with a magnificent collection of field recordings of rímur made in the late 1960s and early 1970s (with a few from before), but sounding as fresh as though they had been recorded last week. There is some magnificent singing here: I was particularly impressed by the sweet chanting of Margrét Hjálmarsdóttir (1966), the vigour and conviction of fisherman Thórdur Gudbjartsson (1965) and Jón Lárusson singing part of his own grandfather’s rímur in 1942.
Outside the epic category are the quite beautiful lullabies (some of them by her grandfather) that end the selection, sung by Ása Keyilsdóttir in 1969, with her sleepy child joining in. If you are unfamiliar with this tradition of Icelandic singing, this recording presents a perfect introduction. Invest in all four of these discs and you will be, I think, astonished at the tremendous variety and richness of Icelandic music of all kinds.