With only a population of around 350,000, Iceland punches well above its weight in so many creative and sporting fields – not least in classical music. Some of the most up-and-coming voices in film, media and classical, names such as Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir, have come from this remote corner of the north Atlantic Ocean and created a worldwide reputation of excellence. Discover the work of three such composers, from three different generations, published by Wise Music.
Haflidi Hallgrímsson (b. 1941)
Hallgrímsson began his musical life as a cellist, spending twenty years playing with orchestras in Iceland, England and Scotland. A lifelong interest in writing music, and studies with Peter Maxwell Davies and Alan Bush, led him to give up his performing career in 1983 to compose full time. Unsurprisingly, works for strings are central to his catalogue, most of his large ensemble works being for strings only. Often inspired by visual art (Hallgrímsson is himself an accomplished painter), his unique language is both eerie and paradoxical; with repeated listening, the seemingly simple can unveil mysterious depths, and the impenetrable can reveal itself with unexpected clarity.
Ombra (1999), 20'
solo viola; str (22.214.171.124.2)
Ombra, Hallgrímsson’s viola concerto, is in essence a long and endlessly varied narrative. After a thoughtful and rhapsodic opening, the soloist enters with an extended and virtuosic cadenza, with the orchestra becoming fully involved in restless and harmonically dense scale passages. A slow meditative passage follows, with the viola singing and whistling high harmonics, leading to a section of fast and furious double stops, showing the more rugged side of the instrument.
Cello Concerto, Op. 30 (2003), 25'
solo cello; 2(pic)2(ca)2(bcl)2/2211/timp/1-2perc/hp/str
Hallgrímsson describes his Cello Concerto as ‘a large-scale lullaby, dreaming strange dreams, soothing my mind while fully awake’. Inception for this idea comes from the influence a simple lullaby by Grieg has on the work, not quoted outwardly but hinted at in low double stops and slow regular rhythms. Whilst the concerto opens and closes quietly, in the middle is a mysterious fantasia of orchestral consonance and dissonance which the Cello guides and sings us through.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s seemingly boundless textural imagination and striking sound world has made her one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music. She has received international success like few others in her field, with regular international performances by ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Her music is composed as much by sounds and nuances as by harmonies and lyrical material – it is written as an ecosystem of sounds, where materials continuously grow in and out of each other, often inspired in an important way by nature and its many qualities, in particular structural ones, like proportion and flow.
aequilibria (2014), 14'
Aequilibria was inspired by various states of balancing forces — by the natural breath between expansion and contraction, and the perspectives of translucence and opacity.
METACOSMOS (2017), 14'
METACOSMOS expands upon the speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole – the unknown – with endless constellations and layers of opposing forces connecting and communicating with each other. As with almost all her orchestral works, the manifestations of this visual and conceptual influences are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of the balance between musical details and how they relate to the larger structure of the work.
CATAMORPHOSIS (2020), 20'
The latest in Thorvaldsdottir’s incredible large orchestral soundscapes, CATAMOPHOSIS was recently awarded the Ivors Composer Award for Large Scale Composition in 2021. It explores the fragile relationship we have with our planet, with a centre conveying a distinct sense of urgency, driven by the shift and pull between various polar forces. Look out for performances of this unmissable work in June by the CBSO and the New York Philharmonic in January 2023.
Eydís Evensen (b. 1994)
Eydís Evensen has burst right to the front of the post-minimalist music scene in the past year. Growing up around Tchaikovsky and Led Zeppelin in equal measure, she started taking piano and flute lessons at the age of five in her hometown of Blönduós, a town with a population of just 800 located in the sparse northern half of Iceland. She put her plans to train as a concert pianist at a Viennese conservatoire on hold and instead travelled to London and New York, coming back to Iceland to release her debut album Bylur (‘snowstorm’) in 2021. Inspired by artists such as Philip Glass, Víkingur Ólafsson, Thom Yorke and Hildur Guðnadóttir, she brings her own brand of serene post-minimalism with chordal passages belying her knowledge of the classical piano repertoire and an unfolding emotional complexity.
Brotin (2021), 3'
This light little piano work is typical of Evensen’s style, music which you feel has a powerful undercurrent, but which restrains itself from unleashing its full power. It comprises of two main sections. The first opens with a meandering and unexpectedly long sweeping figure emotionally contained to the centre of the piano. The second moves upward slightly to perform different music. Delicate strokes on the piano briefly change the tone into something flighty and more spring-like before landing back on earth. The whole work exudes a sense of the improvisation, almost toccata-like.
Wandering II (2021), 3'
The piano provides a triplet rolling pulse as the string provide a melancholic but simultaneously hopeful filmic backdrop. Brass provides the warmth but, as the title suggests, we are left without resolution.