Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Recurrence
Sono Luminus

While not quite as revolutionary as its ‘60s British counterpart, the Icelandic Invasion by artists such as Sigur Ros, The Sugarcubes (from which Björk emerged), and Múm exerted a powerful influence when their respective musics made their way to North American shores during the ‘80s and ‘90s. In similar manner, Icelandic classical composers have recently established an increasingly strong presence outside their home country, with Jóhann Jóhannsson, Daníel Bjarnason, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, to name three of many, attracting deserved attention. Labels such as Valgeir Sigurðsson's Bedroom Community and Sono Luminus have done much to bring to greater public awareness the music of these and other figures, the latter, for example, having featured the work of Anna Thorvaldsdottír on ICE's In the Light of Air in 2015 and mere months ago material by Sigurðsson, Úlfur Hansson, and Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson on Nordic Affect's Raindamage.

That Icelandic Invasion continues on the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Recurrence, with compositions by Thorvaldsdottír and Bjarnason included among the five settings and the latter, the orchestra's Artist-in-Residence, conducting. On this sixty-seven-minute release, recorded at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík in December 2016, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's luxuriant sound is enhanced by the customary clarity of Sono Luminus's production, the label lavishly presenting the material, as it often does, in both CD and Pure Audio Blu-ray formats.

The composers' sensibilities are informed not just by the classical tradition but by contemporary practice and related genres. By way of illustration consider Thurídur Jónsdóttir, a flutist as well as composer who studied composition and electronic music at the Bologna Conservatory and who naturally incorporates acoustic and electronic sounds into her compositions. In addition, violinist-composer and amiina member María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir has composed music for films and dance, while Hlynur Aðils Vilmarsson has been a member of the composers' collective s.l.á.t.u.r. and played in Icelandic rock bands.

Affording the Iceland Symphony Orchestra an excellent showcase for its lustrous and luminous sound, Jónsdóttir's Flow and Fusion establishes the recording's soundworld with a brooding, electro-acoustic evocation rich in atmosphere; throughout the eleven-minute setting, the bright, woodsy tone of the marimba can sometimes be heard extricating itself from a mass of shimmering strings and blustery horns. Rather more daunting is Vilmarsson's bd, which lumbers like some elemental colossus as it shrieks, shudders, and stutters its way through the thorniest of landscapes; bright timbres surface here, too, however, with triangles, flutes, and pizzicati strings offering a welcome counterpoint to the darker forces operating underneath. Sigfúsdóttir opts for epic drama in Aequora, though she likewise counters the monumental tone of the meditation with delicate textures that alleviate its heaviness and imbue it with a peaceful aura, while Bjarnason's three-part title piece perpetuates the light-dark, textural-melodic, and fragile-robust contrasts that are so much a part of this collection. Nevertheless, it's the sixteen-minute Dreaming that suggests Anna Thorvaldsdottir might be the most quintessentially Icelandic of the five composers when ominous textures abound in the work's slow-moving eruptions of woodwinds, strings, and percussion.

“Can you hear a country in its music?” asks Steve Smith in the liner notes. An emphatic answer in the affirmative would seem to be the only possible reply, given how naturally images of mist-enshrouded landscapes, steam-spewing geysers, and mysterious, at times menacing vistas are summoned forth. Immense blocks of shimmering sound advance glacially through these orchestral soundscapes, the music's icy timbres rendered with exquisite poise by Iceland's national orchestra.

May 2017