“Occurrence is the third, and at least for now the last, in a hugely illuminating series devoted to works by contemporary Icelandic composers, as performed by Iceland’s 70-year-old national orchestra. Speaking for myself – and surely for many others, as well – the series has been a milestone project, one that any conscientious collector of symphonic music simply must have on the shelf. Across three albums now, Sono Luminus has capitalized shrewdly on swelling global interest in the music of Daniel Bjarnason and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, using their works as a means by which to introduce seven more composers with original, substantial voices. Three of the composers represented on Occurrence return from previous installments in the series. In addition to Bjarnson – who also has served as an insightful, sympathetic conductor throughout – we hear new works from Þuri´ður Jonsdottir, whose Flow and Fusion opened the initial disc, Recurrence, and from Haukur Tomasson, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was a highlight of the second release in the series, Concurrence. These repeat engagements prove serendipitous, showing off fresh facets of these newly familiar creators. One, Bjarnason’s own Violin Concerto, scarcely requires introduction, having proved its merits and attractions already on concert platforms around the globe since its 2017 world premiere at the Hollywood Bowl. Pekka Kuusisto, the violinist for whom the piece was written, demonstrates his consummate skill as a technician, a melodist, a collaborator and – not least – a whistler, and the orchestral accompaniment, no surprise, is vivid and alert.
‘Recurrence’, ‘Concurrence’, and now ‘Occurrence’. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s three-disc survey of new orchestral music from its homeland has reached its end point and it’s easy to conclude that no country on earth has reinvented the language of the symphony orchestra on such distinctive and locally relevant terms as this one. So much so that a Canadian such as Veronique Vaka can fall for Iceland and cook up a piece like Lendh, an extraordinary canvas with an umbilical connection to the landscape of the place. Lendh is a marvel.
Haukur Tómasson’s In Seventh Heaven is full of ear-catching orchestration, as raw and unconventional as Jón Leifs’s, ulterior harmonies tugging while colours shift as rapidly as the Icelandic weather above. The orchestra’s handling of the exposed passages for high strings and characterised woodwind-writing demonstrate technically how far it has come in the past decade alone.
Þuríður Jónsdóttir's Flute Concerto, "Flutter", features sampled insect noises and other electronics, including a promotion of the ubiquitous Nordic pedal note to a general hum. Structurally it feels like a road movie – a journey through textural landscapes more than anything developmental.
Conductor Daníel Bjarnason own Violin Concerto has dedicatee Pekka Kuusisto’s puckish spirit all over it, from the infectious soloist whistling (used to moving effect when it returns late on as the violin’s sole accompanist) to the grunge-improvisatory elements and clear-cut, eyemoistening tune.
As an appendix we hear from a dead composer, Iceland’s great 12-tone pioneer Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson (1938-2005). His Adagio for strings and percussion of 1980 marked a shift in style following the death of his wife and a battle with the bottle. This is a bleak, translucent elegy that places unison sheets of wannabe-lyrical string melody over held pedal notes and drones, ending with a sudden rush of air as the last pedal falls away. A quizzical gesture to wrap up an outstanding and historic series, one that affects the mind as much as the ears.