A Little Suite for String Orchestra
Piano Sonata in D minor, Op.3
Four folksongs for flute and piano
Romances for violin and piano – No.1, Op.6& No.2, Op.14
The Reykjavik March
Blow the Horns
Choral songs – My Lord’s Prayer; Sing Nation Free; Yuletide Lives On
17 songs for tenor and piano
New Year’s Eve – Two Songs
The AB String Ensemble
Paul Barritt (violin)
James Lisney (piano)
Jaime Martin (flute)
Elizabeth Layton (violin)
Icelandic Festival Marching Band
Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson
Harfnarfjordur Chamber Choir, Stjórnand
Gunnar Guobjörnsson (tenor)
Björg Pórhallsdóttir (soprano)
Recordings made in 1996 and 2006
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: SMEKKLEYSA
SMK 47 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
To judge by the music on these discs, Icelandic composer Árni Björnsson (1905-1995) was a fascinating musical personality, able to turn his hand to a number of mediums and styles. That he was able to do so is made all the more remarkable in the wake of what the booklet ominously terms a “vicious and gratuitous assault” in 1952.
Pianist James Lisney has become one of the composer’s primary advocates, his awareness of Björnsson’s music made through the Piano Sonata. This he recorded for Olympia in 1996, with the music from that recording faithfully reproduced on the first of the two discs.
The sonata is the most substantial work here, and though its three movements last just under fifteen minutes there is an abundance of melody and keen depth of expression, readily portrayed by Lisney. Echoes of Chopin and early Grieg can be detected in the opening movement but doesn’t prevent the work from having a singular voice, which Lisney finds, especially within the stately tread of the slow movement.
Of equal appeal is A Little Suite for String Orchestra, texturally and stylistically reminiscent of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, but in its close recording intimate and self-contained. A charming ‘Pastorale’ and elegiac ‘Nocturne’ are complemented by the pizzicato ‘Scherzettino’ and jig-like ‘Rondo’, all neatly woven together in a taut performance by the string nonet, lead by Paul Barritt.
Björnsson’s versatility within instrumental music is obvious in the variety of forces making up the first disc. Short, patriotic pieces for brass band close the disc, brightly performed. Yet at the other end of the scale, Jaime Martin and Lisney sympathetically perform the Folksongs for flute and piano.Lisney proves an agile accompanist for these and is thoughtful, too, in the attractive Romances for violin and piano. These are fine chamber pieces in the vein of Wieniawski or Sarasate, with Elizabeth Layton’s full tone complementing their style.
The aforementioned assault on Björnsson meant that for the second half of his life he had to struggle against brain damage. Whilst somehow retaining the talent of composition he was necessarily restricted to smaller forms. Yet here he was able to harness his melodic gift within the set framework of text settings.
The songs are straightforward and direct, affecting in either the rustic ‘Spring Song’, the dramatic climax of ‘The Hermit’ or the simple yet poignant melodic steps of ‘The Poet Is Silent’. The three choral numbers are essentially hymns, and these together with the songs have a Yuletide feel.
Then just when it seems we have heard all sides of this composer he turns in three tango-like dance numbers, winningly performed by Jóhanna Vigdis Arnardótiir. Suitable encore pieces, these, for a collection that delights in whatever measure you wish to indulge it.
The CDs are handsomely presented with full notes, biographies, pictures and texts and translations.