Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Visions and Images
Geysir (1961)
Landsýn - Overture (1955)
Three Images (1961)
Hekla (1961)
Reykjavík Male Choir
Iceland SO/Paul Zukofsky
world premiere recordings; rec 1989

All the works on this rather short-duration disc are from the post-1945 period. In 1945 he returned to Iceland after spending many years in Germany. Nazi Germany might have warmed to his music in its relationship to the Eddas and the flow towards the great Nordic myths. Of equal attraction should have been Leifs' appropriation of the tonal structure of Icelandic folksong into his music. Hjalmar H Ragnarsson points out that the music on this disc relies to an extent on the 'homophonic motion of parallel perfect fifths, as in the old tvísöngur'. However it was all very well being inspired by Aryan-acceptable materials but if your music was as stony as Leifs' your prospects were limited. If German audiences were expecting garrulous heroic tone poems they would not find them from Leifs. His Saga Symphony, for example, is not at all a lush celebration of blonde-haired heroism but a much more angular work though not at all atonal. His progress was also 'trammelled' by his having married a Jewish concert pianist. Others, with Jewish connections, did not suffer to the same degree so that cannot have been the only reason.

Landsýn was written in 1955 ten years after his return. The other three works are products of 1960-61. Geysir and Hekla pair together naturally. Both are derived from elemental landmarks. Hekla is a volcano and Geysir is also concerned with volcanic activity. Geysir not so much celebrates but seems to be driven by the great uncontrollable forces of nature. Forceful, violent, rumpled and shaken by off-beat slamming rhythms this is tense, eager, edgy and unruly music. Small rhythmic cells run riot. Those rhythmic patterns recall, in eccentricity, the hammer-blows at the end of Sibelius 5. Both Hekla and Geysir, though hardly dreamy evocations, suggest the Schopenhauer-like absorption of the composer in forces that make him feel small. Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, Viteszlav Novak and Frederick Delius were all drawn to the ecstatic sublimation of self in the inexorable forces of nature. Whereas Delius and his contemporaries found this in great lyrical melt-downs Leifs takes a more onomatopoeic route. The explosions, slams, rams-horn braying and eruptions are an extrapolation of a pictorial line which I trace from Sibelius's prelude to The Tempest; forward to Gösta Nystroem's Tempest Overture and backwards to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Beyond that we can look at the works of a whole generation of composers who took their green light from Edgard Varèse. In Geysir Leifs specifies striking stones of various sizes, bulky steel chains to be shaken, cannons, sirens, bull-roarer and in Hekla the wailing and moaning howl of a choir. This panoply of sound first book-marked Leifs in my memory back in the late 1970s when I bought an LP of the Saga Symphony (ITM2 - again an IMIC production). This had Jussi Jalas conducting the Iceland SO in a Sept 1975 recording - a work which in the BIS version (BIS-CD-730) I hope to review here before too long. Jalas conducted the premiere of the work in 1950. It had been written in 1943 while Leifs and his family were stuck in Germany only to escape to Sweden in 1944.

Landsyn grumbles threateningly like the essence of the terror that stalks through the Grendel passages in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf tale. The landmarks along the way include a further offbeat stomping and at 6.28 a brass fanfare that sounds remarkably like American symphonist, Roy Harris. The Three Images are variously gently primitivistic, like an unflowing, haltingly-stepped Tallis Fantasia, a cheeky string serenade, austere and reverent and a gawky goblin dance.

A most rewarding disc that has been all but neglected everywhere. Geysir and Hekla have been recorded respectively on BIS CD 830 and 1030. The other two works have not otherwise been recorded.

 Rob Barnett


Helga Sif Gudmundsdóttir
Iceland Music Information Centre
Sidumula 34
108 Reykjavik
phone +354 568 3122
fax +354 568 3124

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