INKPOT#88 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: LEIFS Saga Symphony. Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Vänskä (BIS)
Sinfna I (Sguhetjur), Op.26
WORaLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä
An Inktroduction by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase
Jn Leifs is to Iceland as Sibelius is to Finland – I can hardly find a better parallel. In the music of Jón Leifs, Iceland’s spirit comes to life: to the Viking rhythm of the rmur and the open vistas of the tvsongur, molten lava roars from the earth, while furnace fires smelt iron in the forge; the silver ice of glaciers grind the land into shape, while gentle snows drift in the wind. (To find out more about Jón Leifs, please visit the excellent Official Jón Leifs Website).
The Saga Symphony was composed in the wake of a failed concert premiere (on March 10th, 1941) of the composer’s Organ Concerto. Played by the composer himself, the concerto apparently so offended the Berlin audience that by the time it was finished, the hall was nearly empty, the audience having left.
In somewhat Coledridgian fashion, Leifs woke up during the night later and immersed himself in the mythic sagas of his Icelandic ancestors. Perhaps partly due to a feeling of defiance towards the unappreciative audience he had just faced, Leifs reaffirmed his resolve to compose a large-scale epic work to depict the people and events of the sagas.
The Saga Symphony was completed in July 1942. The date is significant, and all the more because his two daughters, wife and her parents were all Jews. There is something bitter and defiant in his music, but also brimming with power and the confidence of momentum and purposeful action. Such is part of the appeal of the Saga Symphony, with its mythic-inspired, unrelenting forward motion, its craggy stepwise propulsion.
Leifs himself found ways to support himself and his music through the Nazi environment, and eventually received permits to travel to Sweden in 1944. Not surprisingly, his “escape” caused his reputation some damage among the Nordic peoples. But I think that is ironic – when I first heard the Saga Symphony, straightaway I heard Iceland, its fire and ice, its axe-hewn, hammer-forged myths. Leif’s soundworld might be described as fusing Shostakovich’s orchestration (eg. extremes of instrument registers), Wagner’s scale (well, this is the Edda) and Sibelius’ spirit (including the use of the interval of the fifth) – but this unfair comparisons aside, Leif’s voice is undeniably unique.
The emergence of significant differences in the Northern branch occurred around CE 800. At this time the Scandinavian language (Old Norse) was the language of the Vikings, the sagas and poetic prose Eddas and that of the Runic inscriptions or stone carvings.
Around CE 800, English, or rather Anglo-Saxon, was not far removed from Old Norse in structure, sounds and vocabulary. Britain was subject to about two centuries of strong Norse influence, from about CE 800 to 1050. During this time hundreds of words were taken into English from Norse, and grammatical form was also influenced. A simple examination of the vocabulary of modern English will show that the Latin or Italic element in English is elegant, while the Icelandic element is down-to-earth and matter-of-fact. Since this time, English has undergone a tremendous change, while the 36-lettered Icelandic has not.
Although ancient, the Icelandic language is remarkably adaptable to changing times. Thus there are virtually no imported “foreign” words in daily Icelandic, because new words are easily developed to meet the needs of a more technological society.
Abridged from Volcano Tours: Iceland.
There is an immediate impression of rugged and craggy volcanic landscape, blackened and rich with fire and inspiration. Even the music’s heavy rhythms immediately brought to mind a potent symphony of Giant footsteps and the irrepressible, primeval forces of nature that continues even today to smelt and forge the Land of Ice. In addition to the array of normal percussion instruments, Leifs also included a collection of stones, an iron anvil, large wooden hammers and even shields made of iron, wood and leather. It is as if the long-dead spirits of the Vikings have been resurrected through their instruments to take part in this symphonic seance. Exactly like Sibelius, here was a Nordic composer whose music is become his land, the identity deeply steeped in unique sounds derived from the homeland, without a shadow of a doubt.
The Saga Symphony is the popular name for Leifs’ Symphony No.1, Op.26, entitled “Sguhetjur”, which means “Saga Heroes”. In five movements, the 54-minute work is a truly epic invocation of all things icy, Nordic and mythical – visions of fur-clad, axe-wielding heroes trudging through glacier and mountain are immediately and vividly evoked. I am sure even the novice listener cannot deny the sheer titanic force and ancient energy the music evokes.
The 16-minute first movement depicts – more in spirit-sound than in pictorial narrative – Skarphinn from Njl’s Saga. The movement is marked “molto energico e ridigo”, to which the hero rides forward with determined defiant voice, cleaving orchestral strokes unto his enemies. The stomping themes give way to a quieter, slower section in the middle, still punctuated with brassy outbursts which gain in dominance until the all-important winds and percussion achieve full reign again. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra make an immediate and powerful impression with this music, the rhythms hard, the winds pungent with sonic brimstone.
The slow movement of the symphony portrays Gurn svfrsdttir from the Laxdla Saga. The notes tell me that despite being responsible for her husband’s death, she is the most admired of all the women due to the ingenius portrayal by the author. (Interesting; a little elaboration is in order, I think, and I must go read up…). The opening section is predominantly moderate in volume and pace, with an edge of restlessness as heard in the previous movement. The quiet ending serves to depict Gurn in her old age in prayer as a nun.
Njl’s Saga also speaks of Bjrn of Mrk, a braggart and coward, as well as Kri Slmundarson. Kri has avenged the deaths of Njl and his sons, but, having hidden in the wake of the true hero, Bjrn takes advantage of the heroic situation for himself. The music is thus slightly sardonic in tone, as suggested by the “Scherzo” sub-title of this 5-minute movement. It is in turn heroic and also mock-heroic, giant clomping footsteps alternating with quietly tip-toeing on pizzicato strings, a contrast nicely achieved by the orchestra here. Towards the end, a warlike barrage of sounds is evoked as the hammers, anvils and iron shields are brought to bear upon the orchestral soundscape.
A second Adagio, subtitled “Intermezzo”, takes the form of an 8-minute portrait of Grettir smundarson, the most infamous of Iceland’s outlaws, haunted for life by the ghost of Glmur whom he slew. Leifs inspiration for this movement was also through a poem by Matthas Jochumsson which describes Grettir alone in the dark struggling in suspence while waiting for the ghost. The music is appropriately dark, quiet stretches of anticipation mixed with loud sections of fear mixed with frustration and anger, occasionally pouring into outburst.
The final movement is based on the heroic sacrifice of ormur Kolbrnarskld in the battle of Stiklestad in Norway, as recounted in the Fstbrra Saga. As he lay fatally wounded, ormur pulled out the arrow that had pierced his body and composes a poem before he dies. Towards the end, the unmistakably nordic voice of the Scandinavian longhorn, the lur is heard. Evocative, warlike yet booming with the spirit of their culture, the instruments (real ones) resound through the orchestra and the ages with distant power.
The ending is breathtakingly unique: the insistent charging rhythms recede into the distance, yet completely retains its epic energy. It is as if the orchestral sounds are being slowly turned off in volume, while one imagines a giant rampage of Vikings hurtling through the snows toward their enemies, relentless, all in slow motion. Their war cries are unheard across the ages, yet ring in the tremendous silence.
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The Official Jón Leifs Website Available in Plain English or Vanilla Fire Icelandic.
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