> LEIFS Baldr [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Baldr Op. 34 - A Choreographic Drama in Two Acts (1943-47)
Gunnar Guðbjörnsson (ten) ... Óðin
Schola Cantorum/Hörður Áskelsson
Iceland SO/Kari Kropsu
rec Jan 2001, Halgrim's Church, Reykjavik, DDD
BIS-CD-1230/1231 [40.05+49.37]



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To date This ninety minute work is the most ambitious of the Leifs scores to be tackled by BIS. It has been recorded before on the CP² label (probably not easily accessible now). There the conductor was Paul Zukofsky (better known to some of you as a violinist with a passionate commitment to contemporary works - his DG William Schuman Violin Concerto is worth seeking out.). Zukofsky has conducted many of Leifs' works and several of his recordings can be found in the catalogue of the Iceland Music Information Centre (have a look at their website). Zukofsky conducted the first full concert performance of Baldr in 1991 with the Icelandic Youth Orchestra.

The fact that Leifs lived in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s and had a fascination with Nordic mythology, the sagas and eddas, might lead you to believe that here was a hero of the Nazi state. You would be wrong. Leifs found the NSDAP cultural sympathisers’ appropriation of Scandinavian mythology quite odious. His primitivistic music, rootedly tonal but deploying dissonance borne out of elemental violence (derived from Rite of Spring) did not endear him to the Hitlerian state. His wife was Jewish and he found his work banned. The couple fled to Sweden and thence the composer returned to Iceland. Only two scenes of Baldr were completed in Germany. During the writing Baldr Leifs’ life was shredded by a bitter divorce, by rumours of Nazi sympathies and by the death of his youngest daughter in Sweden in 1947.

The plot of Baldr can be summarised as the struggle between good and evil each personified by Baldr and Loki. The two acts are separated by fifteen years. In the first Act the Icelandic creation epic is played out. The tragic second act establishes a parallel with the Trojan legends when Baldr is case-hardened against death from various natural sources. Mysteriously ivy is rejected and of course the evil and envious Loki, who prizes Nanna (Baldr’s ‘eve’) for his own, slays Baldr with an ivy spear. Loki is finally punished strapped to a cliff face with a bowl of poison above his head. At the close of the work the voice of Óðin rings out prophesying that Baldr will return. The curtain falls with the audience surely wondering about Baldr's proximity to Christ and even to Enkidu (in the Gilgamesh legend).

The music is squat, swarthy and uncompromising. Great thunder-tread steps, often off-beat and dissolute, rend the landscape. Leifs liberally deploys a vast array of percussion including rocks, metal chains, cannons, pistols and anvils. I must not give the impression that the music is an unremitting round of fury and angular sound. There is much quiet music as well and a sort of modernised Grieg-like dance appears from time to time (for example the all grace and smiles in Nanna - Baldr's beloved). Other resonances and coincidences include the wildly unbridled xylophone solo from Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony, a touch of the whirling hell-furnaces of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, Prokofievian gawkiness in The Wedding, Copland-like pastoralism (yet with a certain chilliness) and a Beethovenian stomp as in the dionysian impacts of the Seventh Symphony (try Act II The Throwing Game). There is very little singing and in the five episodes where it does appear it is brief. The voices are used as part of the effect in vocalising ululation and slides in the Dance of the Creatures of the Earth. The final Volcanic Eruption and Atonement is Leifs' pioneering essay in portrayal of the explosive forces of nature. It is here that anvils, stones, chains and thunderous assaults are most in evidence. This furious vehemence was to be followed by much more familiar (or less unfamiliar) later works such as Geysir, Hafis, Hekla and Dettifoss. The movement was surely inspired by the eruption of Mount Hekla in March 1947.

The notes are typically excellent. They are written by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson. Good to see that the quadrilingual booklet includes Icelandic. You would be surprised if Bis had not included all the sung texts and translations. You will not be surprised! Design choices throughout show Bis's sound taste and judgement. The two discs are housed in a single-width case.

Next we must hope that Bis and perhaps IMIC will be prepared to invest in recording the massive Edda trilogy. Perhaps after that someone will suggest that a composer of insight and sympathy such as John Pickard or Rodney Stephen Newton should be commissioned to orchestrate Havergal Brian's great epic Prometheus Unbound (soli, chorus and orchestra) and then to record it. The full score of the Brian seems to have vanished without trace.

Bis are building a (I should say 'the', for there is no competition at all) Leifs Edition paralleling their work in progress for Skalkottas. Such is Bis’s expansive confidence that they do not even list the other discs in the Leifs Edition in the insert booklet. The Iceland SO have been a constant in the series but the conductor Kari Kropsu is a new name at least in this context. I trust that it will not be the last time we hear from him.

This is tough, tonal, uncompromising music, rhythmically emphatic, not without melodic softness, hewn out of granite and adversity. Perhaps not the place to start your Leifs pilgrimage.

Rob Barnett


The movements, scenes or episodes (each separately banded) are:
Act I (CD1)

Dance of the creatures of the earth
The Creation of Man
The Chosen Warriors
The Wedding

Act II (CD2)

Baldr's Dreams
The Oathtaking
The Throwing Game
Baldr's Death
Baldr's Cremation
Volcanic Eruption and Atonement

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