LEIFS: Scherzo concreto, op. 58. Quintet, op. 50. Variazioni pastorale, op. 8 (Variations on a Theme by Ludwig van Beethoven). Elegies, op. 35.
Thórunn Gudmundsdóttir (mezzo), Rut Ingólfsdóttir (violin), Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra, unnamed male choir/Bernharthur Wilkinson.
Smekkleyaa SMK46 (F) (DDD) TT: 54:50.

From the north of Iceland, no less, Jón Leifs (1899-1968) studied in Germany. He met a German Jewish pianist and married her. They stayed in Germany throughout almost the entire Third Reich, where Leifs pursued his career, until 1944, when the family, which included two daughters, 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 based on the folk music of his native country, with a nationalist thrust behind it. He is, by no means, as fine a composer as Vaughan Williams or Bartók, 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 to 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 trio. It 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 1960, shows 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, and spliced 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 devastated 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 less wide-ranging than Mahler, still very powerful in its own right. Indeed, I can think the only reasons for its obscurity the geographic isolation of its 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 and without affectation. The male choir sings thrillingly in tune, although I could have used clearer diction at times. Wilkinson keeps everything together, especially difficult in the slow-moving Elegy. If you don't know Leifs's work already, I'd start elsewhere -- say, the Saga Symphony, Geysir, 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)