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Jón LEIFS (1899-1968)
Edda, Part II: Líf Guðanna (The Lives of the Gods) (1951/66)
Oratorio in 6 parts, Op. 42, for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra
Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir (mezzo); Elmar Gilbertsson (tenor); Kristinn Sigmundsson (bass)
Schola Cantorum
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Hermann Bäumer
rec. 2018, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavík, Iceland
Reviewed as a 24/96 stereo download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts in Icelandic & English
World premiere recording
BIS BIS-2420 SACD [64:38]

Anyone who’s heard Icelander Jón Leifs’ large-scale oratorio Edda, Part I (review) will have an inkling of what to expect from Part II. Originally intended as a four-part work - The Creation of the World, The Lives of the Gods, Twilight and Resurrection, only the first two were completed, in 1937 and 1966 respectively. The umbrella title is derived from medieval collections of Icelandic prose and poetry, which provide plenty of scope for epic treatment. And so it proves, although listeners familiar with Leifs’ more visceral pieces may be surprised at his sparing use of the vast forces involved. (In 13 sections, Part I is scored for tenor, bass-baritone, chorus, organ, lur [a straight natural blowing horn without finger holes], ocarina, bagpipes and orchestra.) Then again, this music - broad, gaunt and implacably ancient - seems to spring from the landscape itself.

Of course, it’s not necessary to hear both parts, as they are self contained. That we have a choice at all is down to BIS, who have dedicated themselves to recording Leifs’ long-neglected output. A quick look at eClassical reveals no less than 68 album entries, which is quite remarkable for a composer who still evades the attention of all but the most persistent and adventurous explorer. I first came to his music via a download of Geysir and other orchestral pieces, with Osmo Vänskä and the Iceland Symphony (BIS-1830). In fact, that’s a pretty good place to start, as the music is both accessible and exciting. In the same spirit of inquiry, I can heartily recommend Recurrence, an absorbing collection of contemporary Icelandic works superbly played by the ISO under Daníel Bjarnason (Sono Luminus). As it happens, that ‘quietly spectacular’ album was made in Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall, as was this world-premiere recording of Edda, Part II.

And it’s all gain, for while the seemingly cavernous acoustic of Hallgrim’s Church, the largest in Iceland, suits the distant, primordial narrative of Part I, The Creation of the World, the bold, colourful character of its follow-up, The Lives of the Gods, really comes alive in this ultra-modern performing space. (The inaugural concert took place on 4 May 2011.) In particular, timbres and textures register far more clearly, as do the soloists and mixed choir. Also, the soundstage is more precise, spatial relationships nicely caught. Musically, the opener, ‘Odin’, is quasi-Wagnerian at first, although Leifs quickly reverts to his economical, rather declamatory style, timps and bass drum prominent in the mix. That’s especially true of the immensely virile second movement, ‘Sons of Odin’. And what incisive singing from the ideally placed Schola Cantorum, led by Hörður Áskelsson. As for conductor Hermann Bäumer, on the podium as for Part I, his grip on the music is admirable, momentum never in doubt, even in Leifs’ less propulsive passages, such as those of ‘Goddesses’.

Any reservations at this halfway point? None to speak of, especially when the score is so deftly navigated and delivered with such conviction. In general, the soloists are secure, the Icelandic mezzo Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir’s soft, sustained highs very impressive indeed. That said, the real interest seems to reside in the orchestra and choir. Happily, Leifs injects just enough variety into the piece to ensure interest, although listeners unfamiliar with the composer’s idiom may feel differently. To those I say, give the music time to ‘bed in’, for it’s worth the effort. As expected, Hans Kipfer’s engineering is first rate, the unbridled energy of ‘Valkyries’ and ‘Norns’ thrillingly caught. The finale, ‘Warriors’, is even more of a sonic and musical tour de force; indeed, the tireless choir and heroic drum beaters deserve special praise for their blazing commitment to this intriguing score. If you must choose, go for Part II, which I find far more rewarding. On reflection, though, I do think Part I, set down in 2006, would have benefited from being recorded in the magnificent acoustic of the Harpa hall; alas, it didn’t exist at the time. The succinct and informative liner-notes by Heimir Ingólfsson.

Not a neglected masterpiece, perhaps, but well worth hearing nonetheless; also, the inspired playing and singing are superbly rendered.

Dan Morgan

I. Óðinn (Odin) [19:00]
II. Synir Óðins (Sons of Odin) [10:18]
III. Ásynjur (Goddesses) [20:01]
IV. Valkyrjur (Valkyries) [2:46]
V. Nornir (Norns) [4:58]
VI. Einherjar (Warriors) [6:55]

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