Backstage at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, a mens’ choir is rehearsing. It’s their 100th anniversary, and a group of craggy old men in suits are talking to Víkingur Ólafsson like he’s a favored son-in-law, back for one of his many regular visits.Ólafsson has a lot on his plate right now. Last week, he signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Gramophon. He’ll premiere a Haukur Tómasson Piano Concerto at the new Elbphilharmonie Hamburg in February, then at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April. Both venues are putting on festivals of Icelandic music. In that same spirit, we asked Ólafsson to put together a playlist from his home. Here is his introduction: “The task of creating a playlist around the theme of Iceland is daunting: it would be easy to put one together that would go on for hours. But I wanted to create something that could actually be listened to in one sitting. Here is some of my favorite music from the 64th parallel north.”
Haukur Tómasson – Violin Concerto, II. —; Sigrún Eðvaldsdóttir (Violin), Guðmundur Óli Gunnarsson (Conductor), Caput Ensemble
Haukur Tómasson is very much on my mind these days as I prepare to give the world premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2. Tómasson writes music with bulletproof structures, a unique flair for orchestration, and a rare ability to develop his ideas further than you thought possible. This Violin Concerto is the first piece of his that I fell in love with—there’s a moment in the second movement, when the harpsichord enters, that still sends shivers down my spine.
Thurídur Jónsdóttir – “Flow and Fusion”
This piece, by Thurídur Jónsdóttir, is pure gold. If you have a good sound system it will blow your mind. Jónsdóttir has written, “One of the images I had in mind while writing ‘Flow and Fusion’ were different streams of glowing hot magma coming together in one surging lava-flow which cools down, becomes a rock…and echoes.”
Snorri Sigfús Birgisson – Piano Concerto No. 2, II.; Víkingur Ólafsson (Piano), Guðmundur Óli Gunnarsson (Conductor), Caput Ensemble
From Jónsdóttir’s dark sounds to this luminous next piece, the second movement of Snorri Sigfús Birgisson’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he wrote for me in 2006). I’m particularly fond of the cadenzas in this movement, from approximately 3:20 to the end. They feel improvisatory, yet the structural proportions and the sense of time (or timelessness) are worth marveling at.
A little trivia: Birgisson has spent a great deal of time listening to and studying the over 2,000 Icelandic folk songs preserved on tape. They were recorded by musicologists who, around the middle of last century, traveled around Iceland and asked farmers to sing folk songs which had been orally preserved through the ages. The melodic material of this piece stems from an Icelandic folk song found in the archives.
Björk – “Hidden Place”
I admit that I wondered whether I was even allowed to put Björk into this playlist of Icelandic music. Would it be too much, too obvious? But I have to, as her work inspires me deeply on many levels.
“Hidden Place” is probably the song I’ve listened to the most. I don’t really know why. There is something perfect about this song and it makes for such a strong opening to the sensual and confident album “Vespertine.” Given this fantastic motive that appears on 0:49, I have to ask Björk one day whether she was listening to Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” when she wrote it.
Jón Leifs – Requiem; Hallgrimskirkja Motet Choir
Jón Leifs’ Requiem is not a requiem in the traditional sense of the Latin Mass, but rather a short a cappella work, written as a lament for his daughter who drowned shortly before her 18th birthday. The text—a collage of poems by Jónas Hallgrímsson, Iceland’s most beloved romantic poet—is a lullaby in which a parent sings its child to sleep. The music shifts constantly between major and minor; the perfect fifth, so present in Icelandic folk music, serves as a foundation and lends the work a quasi-medieval character. The piece is very different from Leifs’ other music: grand-scale orchestral works such as “Hekla” and “Geysir” that depict the raw power and explosive energy of Icelandic nature.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir – “Aeriality”; Ilan Volkov (Conductor), Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Speaking of Icelandic nature, Thorvaldsdottir has incorporated it into her work by making drawings of it that she then turns into musical structures. By now, she is well-known internationally, but for those who don’t know her, “Aeriality” is a good introduction to her otherworldly sounds and gestures. The first time I heard it, I got caught up in the suspense—the slowly-moving harmonic progressions create a framework for the tremendous life inside them.
Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson – “Heyr himna smiður”; Shaw Street Collective
Sigurbjörnsson passed away in 2013. This psalm, “Heyr himna smiður,” written to a poem by 12th-century poet Kolbeinn Tumason, has become one of those rare works of art by which a nation defines itself.
Georg Philip Telemann – Fantasia No. 10 in D Major; Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir (Violin)
A playlist about Icelandic music has to allow for Icelandic performers in addition to composers. Elfa Rún Kristindóttir is a superb violinist with crystalline interpretations of Telemann Fantasies and Bach Concertos.
Daníel Bjarnason – Piano Concerto No. 2, “Processions” III. Red Handed
Bjarnason wrote this work for me in 2008-2009 and we premiered it together with Iceland Symphony, with him conducting, in February 2009. It was a memorable night. Everyone in Iceland was angry and confused in the dark months following the near-national bankruptcy in October 2008. There had been intense protests, which led to the resignation of the government only a few days earlier. Everything felt chaotic. And then came this concert with only new Icelandic compositions on the program—a format for which it had been, until then, very difficult to attract a large audience. But that night the old cinema building, the Iceland Symphony’s home until the Harpa Concert Hall opened in 2011, was full, and the reaction was intense. That atmosphere will probably not be recreated until the next national bankruptcy.
Ólöf Arnalds – “Surrender”
The first time I came across Arnalds’ music I remember thinking that I’d never heard anything even remotely like it. I still think so. This is a very personal song, a meeting of friends, with Björk improvising background voices. ¶