Unto us - for ease of reference I hope I’ll be
forgiven for using the work’s English title - was composed
in 2001 and premièred in Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja
on 30 December that year under the direction of Hörður
Áskelsson, the cantor of the church. A further performance,
also conducted by Áskelsson, was given a year later and
is preserved on this CD. The work is scored for soloists, two
choirs - in this performance comprising respectively 16 voices
and 41 voices - and an orchestra consisting of strings, two
oboes, cor anglais and percussion. It’s claimed to be
the most substantial Christmas disc by an Icelandic composer
to date. As you may infer from the forces involved in this performance,
though the music sometimes achieves powerful climaxes much of
the piece tends to be more chamber-like in scale.
Though John A. Speight is described in the booklet as an Icelandic
composer - and fairly so, since he has been a citizen of that
country for many years - he was born in England and studied
singing and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and
Drama before moving to Iceland in 1972; he has lived there ever
since. During his time at the Guildhall he was also a private
composition pupil of Richard Rodney Bennett.
I should mention straightaway a practical problem in appraising
this work. The booklet includes an English translation of what
I found to be a very helpful note by Valdemar Pálsson
and there’s also an English translation of the Icelandic
text. Unfortunately the sung text and its translation are not
placed side by side. Thus I found myself constantly flitting
back and forth between Pálsson’s note - which is
a useful guide to where we are in the music - and the two versions
of the sung text. I found it very difficult at times to work
out exactly what was being sung, especially by the choir, in
a very unfamiliar language and then compare that with the English
translation. A more considerate booklet layout would have helped.
The oratorio is cast in three parts. The first, which is by
some distance, the longest - it accounts for virtually half
the length of the work - takes its text from three sources.
The two main ones are Psalm 130 (‘Out of the depths’)
and verses from chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah. Towards the end
there’s a setting of verses of the Lutheran hymn ‘Nun
kommt der Heiden Heiland’. In essence, this section is
all about the travails of God’s chosen people prior to
the birth of Christ and their appeals for help. The prevailing
mood is, unsurprisingly, sombre and earnest. Much of the music
is in either a slow or moderate tempo and at times it’s
quite anguished in tone. I’m afraid I found the seriousness
of tone was not very encouraging to the listener - or at least
to this listener. To be honest, I think the trouble is that
this section is too long. I think it’s perfectly legitimate
in a Christmas work to reflect on the spiritual darkness prior
to the birth of Christ; after all, that’s precisely what
Handel did in Part I of Messiah. However, Handel managed
to achieve this without penning lengthy stretches of gloomy
music - there are frequent hints in his music of better
things to come, and often these are far more than hints. I’m
afraid Speight sustains his dark mood for far too long and by
the time a rather lovely homophonic setting of ‘Nun kommt
der Heiden Heiland’ for unaccompanied choir end the movement
it’s too late - or at least, it came too late for me.
Furthermore, I think the length of Part One unbalances the work,
given the subject matter of Part One. If I may put it this way,
rather too much time is devoted to travails in the BC era and
insufficient to celebration of Christmas itself.
Part Two, the shortest section, opens with a verse of another
Lutheran hymn, ‘Von Himmel hoch’, and then the rest
of the movement sets various verses from Isaiah, prophesying
the birth of Christ. There’s an attractive soprano solo
in this section and later some effective writing for the choir.
In general the music in this section strikes a more optimistic
note and is more engaging than much of what we heard in Part
Part Three sets two sections of St, Luke’s Gospel. The
first of these relates the Annunciation, including Mary’s
prayer, the Magnificat. The second tells of the birth of Christ
and the Angelic announcement of his birth to the shepherds.
The Magnificat is given to the mezzo soloist, accompanied by
a string quartet and the cor anglais. Here the music is intimate
and often delicate and Guðrún Johanna Ólafsdóttir
sings it expressively. However, even in Part Three, much of
the music is, at least to my ears, serious in tone. It’s
only in the last couple of minutes, when the message of the
Angels is proclaimed powerfully, that the music seems to attain
anything like the optimism that I would expect.
The performers seem to engage with the music with great commitment
and, so far as I can judge, given that the music is so unfamiliar
to me, the performance seems to be a good one. The soloists
form a good team though I think the ladies outshine the men
and the tenor exhibited signs of strain once or twice. The sound
is good and, though the recording was made at a live performance,
the audience is commendably silent.
I don’t know if it’s possible to perform Unto
Us in a language other than Icelandic - say English or German.
If not its appeal and circulation is likely to be extremely
limited, I suspect. To be honest, however, I’m not sure
that language is the only problem with this work. There is no
doubt that it is a sincere piece, indeed, it’s deeply-felt
at times. However, I just find it too earnest for its own good.
That’s a subjective reaction which others may well not
share. However, for all the evident sincerity of the music I
didn’t experience a great sense of Christmas joy
during most of its sixty-seven minutes duration. Others may
well respond more positively - I hope they do - but I doubt
that Unto Us is a work to which I’ll return at
Christmases in the future.