LEIFS: Scherzo concreto, op. 58. Quintet, op. 50. Variazioni pastorale,
op. 8 (Variations on a Theme by Ludwig van Beethoven). Elegies, op.
Thórunn Gudmundsdóttir (mezzo), Rut Ingólfsdóttir
(violin), Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra, unnamed male choir/Bernharthur
Smekkleyaa SMK46 (F) (DDD) TT: 54:50.
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From the north of Iceland, no less, Jón Leifs (1899-1968)
studied in Germany. He met a German Jewish pianist and married her.
in Germany throughout almost the entire Third Reich, where Leifs
pursued his career, until 1944, when the family, which included two
was allowed to emigrate to officially-neutral Sweden. Shortly thereafter,
Leifs divorced his wife, left his family, and moved back to Iceland.
Leifs occupies roughly the same position in Iceland as Vaughan
Williams does in Britain, in the sense that he invented a modernism
on the folk music of his native country, with a nationalist thrust
it. He is, by no means, as fine a composer as Vaughan Williams
but he has his moments. His best works, and most characteristic in
my opinion, are those for full orchestra. He often goes for a primitive
quality -- open fifths, heavy percussion, bare textures, muscular
chord progressions -- and can generate quite a lot of power. He seems
need the resources of the large orchestra to get something going.
Unfortunately, this is largely a program of chamber music.
The Beethoven Variations (heard here in Leifs's own string-quartet
arrangement of the orchestral score) is basically light work. The
theme, not developed by Beethoven himself, comes from the string
may have stuck in Leifs's head for that very reason. The variations
themselves show an interesting mind (by the third variation, Leifs
has left Beethoven behind), but the overall structure is nothing
much. This, incidentally, enjoyed moderate success in Germany.
The Quintet -- for the unusual combination of flute (doubling on
piccolo), clarinet, bassoon, viola, and cello -- a late work from
a mind at least touched by Schoenberg, although it remains resolutely
tonal. It attracts mainly because of its enigmatic emotional landscape:
for two movements, a bit bleak, yet not really tragic, overwhelmingly "other" and
impersonal. Yet Leifs caps it off with a cheekily-playful finale, which
the liner notes tell me evokes Icelandic folk music. Since I wouldn't
know an Icelandic folk tune if it bit me, I'll take the writer's word.
Even further out is the 1964 Scherzo concreto. Leifs wrote it after
hearing a series of concerts and lectures by American dodecaphonist
and jazzman Gunther Schuller. It lasts a mere four minutes. Also scored
for the unusual combo of wind quintet plus piccolo and English horn,
trombone, tuba, viola, and cello, the work is a scherzo in the sense
that it hops capriciously from idea to idea. The "concreto" may
very well refer to so-called musique concrète, although it's
not an example of it. Musique concrète was a movement that
took sounds from nature, manipulated them through recorded tape,
snippets together. The isolated sounds of Leifs's scherzo, the sparseness,
evoke the boops and squeaks of the earlier genre. It manages both
playfulness and enigma at the same time.
The big work, as far as I'm concerned, is the Elegy, for male chorus,
mezzo soloist, and solo violin. After the family had broken up,
one of Leifs's daughters drowned off the Swedish coast. Leifs was
by grief and probably guilt. He came up with this work in response
-- a conglomeration of Icelandic poets, folk aphorisms, and so
on for a text. It's the Icelandic Kindertotenlieder -- although
than Mahler, still very powerful in its own right. Indeed, I can
think the only reasons for its obscurity the geographic isolation
composer, far from New York, San Francisco, and London, and its
Old Norse text.
The work runs to three movements: the first two for male choir
only; the last for male choir, mezzo, and solo violin. In the first
movement, "Grief," the
poet remembers the glory of the beloved and longs for death. The extraordinary
second movement, "Dance of Sorrow," laments that everything
must die. Only the possibility of meeting up with the dead in death
consoles. "The sad man laughs, but the happy weeps," sums
up the heaviness of the movement. "My sorrows are heavy, heavy
as lead." The music is minimal, but not minimalist. The tonality
never, ever changes, and yet Leifs carries you with him through a masterful
combination of rhythm and just enough melodic change. After this, one
conceives of transcendence only with difficulty. Leifs may not achieve
it, but he does indeed suggest it, brilliantly in the simple introduction
of the mezzo -- the bright color against the darkness of the massed
Männerchor -- and of the solo violin in its low, mellow, consoling "folk" register. "Walk
by the sea if your way is long. The calm sea does not last. . . . A
calm sea is the best path." One hopes for but cannot expect a
happy life. A beautiful passage blessing the "children, both large
and small," follows. The movement takes us through dark and light,
and although we end on the words "Long hours I think of you," Leifs
achieves a kind of acceptance, simply because of the emotional journey
he's put us through.
All the performances here are at least very good, with the Elegy
extraordinary. Both Guthmundsdóttir and Ingólfsdóttir
wring your heart with very simple means. They present the music clearly
affectation. The male choir sings thrillingly in tune, although I
could have used clearer diction at times. Wilkinson keeps everything
especially difficult in the slow-moving Elegy. If you don't know
Leifs's work already, I'd start elsewhere -- say, the Saga Symphony,
or even the knotty organ concerto. If you've collected a little Leifs
already, this disc adds to the picture.
S.G.S. (July 2008)