Two composer portrait CDs on Sono Luminus (CD Review)

Páll Ragnar Pálsson

Atonement

CAPUT Ensemble, conducted by Guðni Franzson, Tui Hirv, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

Halldór Smárason

Stara

Siggi String Quartet, Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir, Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir, Helga Björg Arnardóttir, Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir, Gulli Björnsson

Sono Luminus CD/Blu-ray (2020)

In recent years, the prominence of Icelandic composers on the international stage has grown considerably, many of them championed by the Sono Luminus label. New discs on the imprint are portraits of two more composers whose careers are in ascent: Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b. 1977) and Halldór Smárason (b. 1989). They are abetted by some of Iceland’s finest chamber musicians, the Siggi String Quartet and CAPUT Ensemble.

This is Pálsson’s second solo CD, consisting of works written from 2011 to 2018. He has a varied background. In his twenties he was a rock musician and then took an extended sojourn for studies in Estonia. Atonement encompasses those experiences and is also about the composer’s return to Iceland after his time abroad. Pálsson says that the importance of place is a significant touchstone for his approach to composing.

Relationships also play a pivotal role in his work. The abundantly talented soprano Tui Hirv is Pálsson’s spouse. She features prominently in several pieces, singing minute shadings and sustained high passages with tremendous dynamic control and expressivity in the title work. On Stalker’s Monologue, singing a text adapted from the Tarkovsky film, Hirv demonstrates more vocal steel and the accompaniment takes on a bleary-eyed cast. Midsummer’s Night features recited text instead of singing, with a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

The CAPUT Ensemble acquits themselves admirably as well. Lucidity features the ensemble crafting microtonal shadings and exaggerated trills, the latter sometimes doubled in strings and winds to kaleidoscopic effect and punctuated by swells of percussion. The extended ensemble passages on Wheel Crosses Under Moss are an excellent response to the keening part sung by Hirv. 

Smárason’s debut solo CD features the Siggi String Quartet. The title work is a good example of the composer’s aesthetic. Spacious use of silence is complemented by long sustained notes that generally have an “edge to them,” in terms of dissonance or playing technique. The quartet are dispatched on a similar errand on the piece Draw and Play, but the gestures between the rests are more animated. Blakta, also for strings, features gentle pizzicato against harmonics and upper register pileups of verticals. 

A guitar and electronics piece, Skúlptúr 1, requires the performer, Gulli Björnsson, to make his way through a challenging hop scotch of techniques in a specified time frame in order to avoid an alarm from the electronics part. Happily he makes it on the recording. 

The best piece on Stara is also the one for the largest ensemble, Stop Breathing. The Siggi Quartet is augmented with bass flute, clarinet, and piano. Breathy whorls and wind glissandos are set against harmonic ostinato passages as well as aggressive squalls of sound. 

A number of current composers are concerned with silence and pianissimo stretches. On Stara, Smárason distinguishes himself by filling in the silence with music of an uneasy demeanor from which one receives little respite or release. His work is unerringly paced and delicately unnerving. Both Atonement and Stara contain excellent performances of provoking works: recommended. 

-Christian Carey 

Best Chamber Music CDs of 2018

Best Chamber Music 2018 

Prism I

Danish String Quartet

Prism I

ECM Records

Prism I is the first of five CDs by the Danish String Quartet, each featuring a work by Bach, a work by Beethoven, and a complementary piece. The key of E-flat is the central focus of this recording. J.S. Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major (transcribed from Book Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier) is a buoyant opener. Shostakovich’s last string quartet, in E-flat minor, vividly contrasts with it. Shostakovich brings together pensive passages, a funeral march, and what appears to be a reprise of the “knock on the door” from the Eighth Quartet, meant to describe the danger of the secret police to the composer: all intimations of fragility and mortality.

The disc concludes with the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, Op. 127 in, you guessed it, E-flat major. Writing for strings, it  is fascinating to note how these composers have responded to this key. E-flat can be tricky: the instruments only have thirds (G and D), not roots, of the tonic and dominant triads to play as open strings, which lends interesting chordal voicings to these pieces. From the muted angst of the Shostakovich quartet’s opening to the nobility and grandeur embodied by Beethoven’s finale, the Danish Quartet are expressive and authoritative throughout. Looking forward to what else will be refracted through the Prism series.

In the Theatre of Air

Marsyas Trio

In the Theatre of Air

NMC Recordings

A CD of flute, cello, piano trios by female composers (mostly British), In the Theatre of Air is thoroughly engaging.  The title work by Hilary Tann is filled with the calls of various birds, ranging widely from goldfinches and starlings to white owls and wild geese in a poetic manner that, while quite distinct from Messiaen’s birdsong transcriptions, is eminently evocative. Laura Bowler’s Salutem provides a forceful representation of multiple epochs of human civilization, affording the ensemble the chance to let loose: even scream with abandon.

Several Concertos by Judith Weir gives each member of the trio a virtuosic solo turn. York Minster by Georgia Rodgers plays with off-kilter ostinatos, creating a loping groove with incisive punctuations. An arrangement of Thea Musgrave’s Canta, Canta is an all-too fleeting visit with this composer; a miniature finely sculpted with undulating, overlapping lines. Two charming short works by the Nineteenth century American composer Amy Beach round out the program.

In the Theatre of Air will likely provide a number of listeners with an excellent entrée into the music of these must-hear composers. The Marsyas Trio are formidable advocates for contemporary music.


Duo Gazzana

Ravel, Franck, Ligeti, Messiaen

ECM Records

In their third recording for ECM, the violin-piano Duo Gazzana (Natascia and Raffaella) assay one of the great warhorses of the standard repertoire, the César Franck Sonata in A-major. Their rendition, full of life and long-breathed lines, rivals and bests many of the totemic recordings of the piece. The other works on the CD are under-programmed pieces by iconic composers, mostly early in their respective catalogues. Ravel’s Sonata Posthume, composed in 1897 but not published until after his death, is a lovely example of his early incorporation of stylistic hallmarks of Impressionism.  Duo for Violin and Piano, filled with Bartokian ostinatos,  was written by Gyorgy Ligeti to be performed by another famous composer: Gyorgy Kurtag. This is its first recording — it certainly merits a second and a third. Theme and Variations by Olivier Messiaen was written in 1932, but its musical language sounds of a piece with his more mature works, like Quartet for the End of Time and Vingt Regards, both from roughly a decade later. From their very first recording until now, Duo Gazzana have programmed imaginatively: this disc is exceptional both in terms of imagination and execution.