Leifs: Baldr / Kropsu, Guybjornsson, Iceland So, Et Al
Baldr is Jon Leifs' richest and longest single work, and like most of his larger pieces he never heard it performed. Its two acts last about 90 minutes, and fans of this expert at composing musical natural disasters will be delighted to learn that it contains both a hurricane and a volcanic eruption. Subtitled a "choreographic drama", it would make quite an impression on stage, assuming it ever could be staged as the composer intended; but until then we have this superb second recording (the first, by Paul Zukofsky and a talented band of Icelandic students and "ringers", was very good but no match for this fully professional effort).
The story, such as it is, begins with the creation of life itself, and of man. Baldr, one of those typical Norse hero types, is a favorite of Odin, and thus hated by Loki. In part one, Baldr meets and marries his beloved Nanna despite Loki's attempts to thwart their union (he has the hots for Nanna too) by summoning up a hurricane. In part two, Odin demands that all things on earth, both living and dead, swear not to harm Baldr, and they all do except (there's always a catch) for the lowly mistletoe. In "The Throwing Game", the Gods check out the efficacy of Baldr's protection by throwing all manner of deadly objects at him, and Loki naturally gets someone to hurl the mistletoe at Baldr, who promptly falls to the ground and dies. After his cremation, there's a huge volcanic eruption after which Odin and the chorus pronounce a final benediction.
Leifs conceived the work in the mid-1940s in part as a protest against the Nazi appropriation of Norse mythology for political and racial ends (he was living in Germany with his Jewish first wife for much of World War II), and very consciously wished to reclaim these stories in what he saw as their original form. Aside from using the old Icelandic texts for the brief sung passages, in Baldr Leifs perfected his mature musical style based on the irregular rhythms and primitive parallel harmonies of Icelandic folk music. The addition of hammers, rocks, chains, gunshots, and other such noise-making instruments to the percussion section gives his output a hard, brutal, primal quality unmatched in 20th century music, and conductor Kari Kropsu and the Iceland Symphony have a field day (as do BIS' engineers) bringing this richly evocative score to deafening life. Turn it way up: if you don't risk your speakers, it isn't an authentic Leifs experience.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Catalog Number: BIS-CD-1230-31
Composer: Jón Leifs
Conductor: Kari Kropsu
Orchestra/Ensemble: Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Schola Cantorum
Performer: Gunnar Gudbjornsson