One of the first new releases of 2021 to catch my attention is Occurrence featuring the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. According to conductor Daníel Bjarnason, this is “the third and last album of the ISO project” which, if true, is a shame in both a positive and a negative sense. Positive: because this series – preceded by Recurrence in 2017 and Concurrence last year – has gone a long way to addressing the relative (i.e. almost complete) lack of recordings of contemporary Icelandic orchestral music; negative: because Occurrence is unfortunately the least impressive of the three albums.
Two works, in particular, sound desperately in need of a sense of direction or purpose. In the case of Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson‘s 1980 Adagio for strings, celesta and percussion, it’s more understandable and forgivable. The composer had entered an Arvo Pärt-like extended period of compositional silence, emerging – via this piece – in a similarly tame, stripped-down and simplified style. It’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that Adagio conveys a kind of sadness in its halting arrangement of drones over which high melodic shapes play out, interspersed with distant rumbles. But, considering the context in which the piece was written, it makes much more sense to hear the work as one afflicted not with pain but acute uncertainty. Adagio is like the real-time expression of the most profound unease with, and maybe even distrust of, a composer’s own musical material (and, perhaps, ability): neither sure what it is nor what exactly to do with it. As a consequence the piece is dynamically flat, its material rendered almost entirely inert. It’s a creative act that one can’t help hoping was better for the composer to go through (and maybe prove cathartic) than it is for a listener to sit through.
Much more active but similarly wayward is the flute concerto Flutter by Þuríður Jónsdóttir. It’s a piece i’ve written about previously, following its performance at the 2019 Dark Music Days. On that occasion, i ruminated how “there was something celebratory about it, perhaps even a mirror of the ‘artless art’ of birdsong and the aloof disinterest of nature ‘doing its thing’ without intentionally conforming to notions of narrative or structure. Perhaps.” Returning to the work two years later i think this was giving it too much the benefit of the doubt. That being said, this recording (featuring the same soloist as in 2019, Mario Caroli) definitely highlights the good as well as the bad. The first few minutes of Flutter are strikingly effective, progressing from tiny scratches (the prerecorded noise of insects), miniscule puffs from the flute and slight surges of wind in the orchestra to a small-scale climax that feels very impressive, even modestly imposing. Yet before long the momentum is squandered and its narrative becomes confused and circular, making the latter half of its 21-minute duration increasingly frustrating and tedious. It’s all the more surprising considering how Þuríður’s piece Flow & Fusion, included on the Recurrence disc, was so much more cohesive.
Another composer better represented on one of the earlier albums is Haukur Tómasson, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was one of the standout works on Concurrence. This time he’s represented by In Seventh Heaven, a curious piece that, while lasting over seven minutes’ duration comports itself like a brisk, concert-opening overture. Much of the piece displays that distinct quality that i’ve previously termed ‘Faberian’, a mix of over-meticulous, upbeat, octave-doubled and -punctuated primary-coloured fanfares and twiddles. In this context, it’s problematic not simply because of how extremely prevalent this kind of thing has been in new music over the last 20 or so years, but because there really isn’t a whole lot else. There’s the continual sense that we’re heading towards something, or that a hitherto unrevealed something is poised to break out – but this never happens. It’s pretty much impossible not to enjoy Haukur’s music, but In Seventh Heaven ultimately feels a bit too much like an extended tease lacking a resolution.
Significant salvation for Occurrence comes in the pair of works that open the album, both of which are outstanding. One of them, Veronique Vaka‘s Lendh, i’ve written about on two previous occasions, originally as an overview and once in more depth as part of my 2019 Lent Series. Both of which should indicate my admiration for the piece, which has only grown spending time with this new recording. Everything i’ve said before applies just as much here, but a striking feature i’ve not previously drawn attention to is its interplay of vagueness and clarity. This tends to work in tandem with a back-and-forth between stillness and motion, with individual elements protruding through the surface of busy, often tremulous textures. Earlier on they’re just isolated pitches; later we can detect the possibility of a melody in there somewhere (its half-imagined presence tantalisingly embellished by the harp). This is part of an overall elusiveness in Lendh that i think is one of its most beautiful and beguiling features. The music often feels as if it’s reaching out, even opening up, yet remaining enigmatic, half in shadow.
As well as conducting the orchestra, Daníel Bjarnason also featured as a composer on the first ISO disc, with his superb short work Emergence. His 2017 Violin Concerto (featuring soloist Pekka Kuusisto) gets Occurrence up and running, and it sets the bar inordinately high, being not only the longest piece on the album (nearly 24 minutes) but also the most compelling. It’s an excellent demonstration of how to get right what went so wrong in Þuríður Jónsdóttir’s Flutter. There, the attempts to move between accumulations and releases of energy rendered the music null, burning itself out. By contrast, in the Violin Concerto, we experience a remarkable push-pull of energy that seems increasingly audacious as the work progresses. This tension also manifests (to a lesser extent) in an aesthetic way; towards the beginning and later on in the work the general style distantly evokes concertos by Shostakovich and Schnittke, though this evaporates throughout the central portion of the piece. But primarily this push-pull is articulated through a continual shifting of gears: ideas are established, allowed to build up speed and force, only then to be slowed, halted or cancelled completely. Yet at no point is the musical energy dissipated; instead, it’s conserved and channelled in new directions, focused down into introverted solos, blanched and extruded to form soft, ethereal string streaks, exploded into busy networks of aggressive repetitions, overdriven into crushed croaks and distorted bursts. It’s an oscillation between great power and great delicacy that’s spectacular to behold and breathtaking to experience.
This may be the last (for now) of this Iceland Symphony Orchestra series, but one can only hope that there will be more albums to come in due course that continue to show off and celebrate the best of Icelandic contemporary orchestral music.