CD Review


© Siebe Riedstra, May 2009

Also published by MusicWeb International



Hallgrimsson: Celloconcert op. 30 - Herma for cello and string orchestra Op 17.

Truls Mørk (cello), Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Storgards.

Ondine ODE 1133-2 • 57' •




Despite a population of only 500,000, Iceland has produced at least two composers who have found their way beyond local recognition: Jon Leifs (1899-1968) and Haflidi Hallgrimsson (b.1941). That is, if you don't count pop cult idol Björk. There is absolutely no connection between the volcanic music of the geysers that we have come to know from Leifs, and the introspective landscapes of basalt and sea, that mark the musical world of Hallgrimsson. Björk seems to hover somewhere in between.

Haflidi was born on the northern shore of Iceland, but soon left for Europe to study the cello in Rome at the Accademia Santa Cecilia, and in London at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1967 he added composition to his studies, with Dr. Alan Bush and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Upon leaving the Academy, he became Principal Cellist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and has lived in Scotland ever since.

In 1983 he left his position at the SCO to become a full-time composer, and during the next quarter century, has been slowly building a name for himself. He has had several commissions from leading orchestras in both Britain and abroad, and of course Iceland.

Hallgrimsson is an accomplished painter, and performed one of his first compositions, Solitaire, written for his own instrument, surrounded by his own drawings and paintings. His music shows sensitivity for line, shape and color, and a great affinity with stringed instruments. His first major success, Poemi for violin and string orchestra, was the first in a line of similar compositions, followed by Rima for soprano, Herma for cello, and Ombra for viola, all accompanied by string orchestra.

Herma, the second piece on this CD, was written for Hallgrimsson's successor at the SCO, William Conway, and first performed by him with the SCO and Ivor Bolton in 1995. The title is an old Icelandic word, now most commonly found in a phrase meaning: 'to repeat someone's words'. There is a strong connotation with speech, and the solo part seems written like a long unbroken monologue. The 22 orchestra members occasionally engage in imitation or dialogue, or else provide background material which is built in a free aleatoric fashion, much in the way as devised by Witold Lutoslawski. Save for the occasional outburst, this music sings slowly and quietly, until the last segment where an almost Bartókian liveliness brings the piece to a close.

The CD opens with the Cello Concerto, written in response to a joint commission from the Oslo Philharmonic, the Iceland Symphony and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and dedicated to Truls Mørk, who gave the first performance at the Ultima Festival in Oslo in October 2003. With this evocative score we enter a sound world, vaguely reminiscent of the late works of Alban Berg. This is largely attributable to the instrumental color, but certainly not to the musical language, which remains totally unique. The composer says that as he worked, a simple Berceuse by Grieg, which he had played on the cello in his childhood 'subtly crept its way into the concerto'; and he eventually came to realize that he was in a sense 'writing a large-scale lullaby, dreaming strange dreams, soothing my mind while fully awake'. The piece begins and ends in this very dreamlike state, with the cello singing above slowly pulsing bass notes, until, at the very end, the cello sinks to ever deeper low notes until it finds its final resting place on a sustained low C - like the sun sinking into the Nordic sea.

It goes without saying that the performance here by Truls Mørk, who has been a lifelong champion of Haflidi Hallgrimsson, is a towering achievement in which every single detail has been worked out carefully. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has performed a large part of this composer's music on a regular basis, and commits itself wholeheartedly, with the wonderfully sympathetic John Storgårds at the helm. Annotations are lucid and the sound is spectacular.