Proms 2014: Haukur Tómasson – Magma & Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser (UK Premières)

Nothing remotely ordinary, it often seems, can come from Scandinavia. This notion was emphatically corroborated at the Proms in the recent pair of UK premières from Iceland’s Haukur Tómasson and Finland’s Jukka Tiensuu. i can’t help wondering whether they succeeded as strongly as they did in part for essentially the same reason, namely that they each embody a remarkable immediacy, even a simplicity. That’s not to say that these are simple pieces—they couldn’t be much farther from it—but there’s an overwhelmingly apparent sense of directness from both composers such that, put crudely, what you hear is precisely what you get.

There’s a lot to hear, though, particularly so in Tómasson’s orchestral work Magma, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (their first appearance at the Proms) conducted by Ilan Volkov. If that title perhaps seems a little obvious for an Icelandic composer, Tómasson backed it up with music that demonstrated a deeply impressive sense of ongoing evolution and development, cause and effect. In fact, forget the title, forget that the work’s divided into five seamless sections (Floating / Animated / Cantabile / Coagulating / Rigorous); neither of those facts are necessarily important when faced with music that seemingly makes such instant ‘sense’. It isn’t the kind of piece where a blow-by-blow account serves any meaningful purpose, as the music is almost constantly in flux. From the mysterious seethings that bring the work into being, through the kind of lurching rhythmic thrust they develop, and even in passages where Tómasson allows the material to become entirely vague, details obfuscated (or even unimportant), the effortless forward motion is not merely plausible but incontrovertible. It’s not just a work about texture, either; melody exists in an interesting relationship to everything else, sometimes in the middleground, sometimes embedded within layers of other sonic stuff; only in the Cantabile section do they sing alone, a Turnage-like episode that, far from breaking the work’s concentration, actually serves to stir everything up into more powerful, pulsing formations, fundamentally disorded & irregular, but irresistibly funky.

Its description as “an ironic coloratura concerto” doesn’t really hint at just how manic is Jukka Tiensuu’s piece for soprano and chamber orchestra, Voice verser. The title is itself a daft play on words, and play is by far the work’s dominating feature, something that clearly delighted the soloist at this Proms performance, Anu Komsi (so memorable from George Benjamin’s Under the Little Hill) together with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Komsi’s husband, Sakari Oramo. But there’s more to Voice verser than obvious mania; indeed, the first movement, ‘Desparia’ could hardly have tapped into a more troubled soundscape, Komsi’s voice sliding and swooping in a sea of slithering lines. There are hints of terror, even madness, in the soprano’s fibrillations but not fragility; on the contrary, her ferocious (extremely high) outbursts are almost shockingly forceful, like a diamond-tip point. Tiensuu’s use of metallic percussion makes the music mildly fantastical, but within such a dark pervading undertone it only proves more unsettling, causing the voice to break into strangulated croaking. Perhaps this is the soprano’s undoing; if so, her subsequent madness is an unalloyed, unhinged joy: five minutes of wildly acrobatic staccato stabs in the dark, kisses blown right and left, outbursts of laughter, a demented game of cat and mouse with the orchestra plus two pairs of off-stage trios (recipients of the aforementioned kisses). A loud, Zappa-esque shout of “Hey!” initiates the final movement, ‘Riitti’, the title of which means both “that’s enough” and “ritual”. Make of that what you will; Tiensuu musters his forces into a full-blown carnival, bolshie and aggressive. Laden with harsh dissonances and unstoppable metronomy, melody present only in the merest of shapes, the soprano seems to walk on eggshells. A suggested orchestral repose proves to be nothing more than a ruse; the strings, taking over, lollop along like a race of pantomime horses, culminating in a climactic “Ah!” from everyone, a sigh as much of exhaustion as relief. Amusing, provocative & downright mental in roughly equal parts, Voice verser may well be the most astonishing thing you hear all year.

Haukur Tómasson – Magma (UK Première)

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Haukur Tómasson – Magma
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Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser (UK Première)

FLAC [79Mb]

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Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser
  • Loved it! (69%, 9 Votes)
  • Liked it (8%, 1 Votes)
  • Meh (15%, 2 Votes)
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Total Voters: 13

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