Saturday, October 06, 2007

Jon Leifs: Iceland's Greatest Composer

A long lost friend of mine would occasionally ask me "what obscure composer are you listening to now?" I delighted in educating him about the likes of Martinu, Brian, Ferneyhough, Carter, etc. Composers I do not find obscure but to the layman are certainly not household words.

Then comes one that was obscure even to me but upon some initial hearing is a composer to be reckoned with and one that deserves a larger voice.

Jón Leifs (1899-1968) is billed as Iceland's composer. With a population somewhat the same as Wichita (310,000) one can imagine Icelandic composers are not exactly a dime a dozen in the music conservatories around the world.

Since music schools are probably not on every street corner in Iceland, Leifs had to leave his native land in order to study piano, composing and conducting. He studied in Leipzig, Germany and eventually settled in Baden-Baden, becoming a successful conductor and a music critic/writer. He married a Jewish woman and thus became a problem for the Nazis. Unable to leave immediately, he eventually managed to get to Sweden and then back to Iceland for the rest of his life.

His music is much like his native country; dark, powerful, cold, craggy, volcanic, relentless. It is difficult to categorize. The brutal power is sometimes overwhelming, thus making listening difficult and taking immense concentration. At the same time, the seismic tension of the music make it irresistible.

I have not heard all of Leif's music, just the "Saga Symphony" and the Three String Quartets. All are moving, emotional pieces.

The Symphony, based on Icelandic tales and heroes is full of battles, ghosts, glory,supernatural powers and sacrifice. I found it at first almost too much with little respite from the tension and drama. But that same relentlessness means the piece is never boring for sure.

The 3 Quartets span his working life and are each accessible and powerful. The more intimate setting of a quartet means a little less relentless orchestral power but certainly no let up in the emotional content. The second "Vita et Mors" is an elegy for his daughter killed in a swimming accident. The 3rd is a vivid portrait of some of El Greco's works including "Toledo", "Jesus chases the moneychangers from the temple" and the "Resurrection". A mini Pictures at an Exhibition that is every bit as descriptive as Mussorgsky's masterpiece.

The wonderful BIS label from Sweden is the main source for recordings of Leif's music. Worth seeking out for an exhilarating musical experience.

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