Iceland fascinates, Iceland attracts, Iceland seduces. There is something intangible in the barren, bare beauty of this country clinging to the top of an active volcano. Its music, both scholarly and popular, has only recently developed in comparison with other European countries. Essentially, it appeared in the 20th century, with Jon Leifs as the main catalyst, and then the rock eruptions of Björk and Sigur Ros, to name but the most famous.
Ice Land: The Eternal Music bridges these two worlds in a very unified, almost monochromatic way, like a black-and-white mineral setting of the country’s inside land. The ambient aura of the album is resolutely contemplative and rarely stirred by dynamic movements more intense than a placid ether.
The programme oscillates between arrangements of national folklore, works by contemporary composers (Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Hjalmar Ragnarsson, Sigurdur Saevarsson), and a few pieces by pioneers of national art music (Leifs, named earlier, but also Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson). Saevarsson’s a cappella Requiem is particularly therapeutic, as peaceful as a body in weightlessness.
For me, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Ad genua for choir and orchestra (most of the other works on the programme are for solo choir) is the album’s greatest gift. Originally commissioned by an American choir to pay tribute to a series of cantatas by the Baroque composer Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) depicting various parts of Jesus’ body on the cross, it is an undeniable masterpiece. As the title suggests (Ad genua : ”At the Knees”), Thorvaldsdottir conveys with rare emotion, but also with fierce intelligence of orchestration, colour and harmony, the concept of the fragility of that part of the body of the Christ as time passes. Glissandos, saltando (bouncy) bow strokes, hymnal lines of strings supporting Carolyn Sampson’s masterful hypnotic solo voice, accompaniment of sometimes wailing, sometimes angelic choirs, this is a choral symphony of beauty shrouded in reverence, mystery, emotion and great spirituality. It is also the most agitated–I would say lively–piece on the disc.
I have already spoken of this extraordinary creator elsewhere on the site. Go and see and hear her string quartet Enigma, it is stunning. She is one of the most brilliant voices in music today.
The album ends with a string arrangement of Fljotavik by the brilliant post-rockers Sigur Ros, another Icelandic national treasure. The song, the ninth track from their 2008 release Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (‘’With a buzz in our ears, we play relentlessly’’), is well rendered and its atmosphere fits perfectly with the whole album (as do most of the band’s songs, you might say).
Great album, highly recommended, even if a bit monochromatic if not for Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s exceptional Ad genua.