, August 2009
The composer was/is a professional cellist having played in Scotland with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - featured here - until 1983 and freelance, so it’s hardly surprising that the instrument features with significance in his quite extensive output. When this new disc was announced however I was keen to review it and re-acquaint myself with the composer. I had not previously come across any of his orchestral works.
After graduating at the Music School in Reykjavik in 1962 Hallgrimsson continued his studies first in Italy and then at the Royal Academy in London. Amongst his teachers have been Alan Bush and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and he has performed with the Mondrian Trio and the Haydn Trio. He has won various composition awards, for example the Wieniawski Prize in 1985.
When listening to these two works Maxwell Davies’ influence on Hallgrimsson can sometimes be heard in terms of texture. I find that especially PMD’s Cello Concerto which was his second Strathclyde Concerto (1988) is near to Hallgrimsson’s language. Both composers are from the ‘frozen north’ and certain sounds are typical of that landscape. Hallgrimsson has not lived in Iceland for some time. He is now resident in Scotland. I can feel the wide open frozen vistas very immediately here as I can in Maxwell Davies although he is a little less extreme.
It’s interesting, by the by, that Ondine have been sponsored for this recording both by the Scottish Arts Council and by the Icelandic Ministry of Education.
Both works are of about the same length and each is in one unstoppable movement divided into contrasting sections. The Cello Concerto is basically slow and atmospheric, dark-hued and brooding with just a brief, windy Scherzando three parts of the way through. There is a ghost lurking in the shape of a Grieg Berceuse, often alluded to. The cello is hardly silent and has an evocative cadenza accompanied mostly by timpani but also by snare drum. The orchestra plays on its own hardly at all. This is something of a drawback aurally as the sound-world can appear a little unrelenting. The coda is a magical phasing out of Hallgrimson into the C major of the Grieg bass lines—very subtle and highly original.
Herma which is effectively the composer’s First Cello Concerto is scored for solo cello and 22 strings, often divided. It was written for William Conway who took over Hallgrimsson’s position in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The title is derived from an Icelandic word which now means “to repeat or to imitate somebody’s words” to quote the excellent booklet notes by Anthony Burton. This means that the cello part “resembles an unbroken monologue, sometimes declamatory but mostly lyrical”. In other words the soloist is in charge and plays practically without a stop. Again the mood is dark and brooding. There is a cadenza, accompanied, magically, in part by harmonics on the string orchestra. Only after twelve minutes has elapsed does a fast section break out. It’s soon quelled but returns almost ten minutes later and attempts to fight on to the end. There is no name for the kind of plan or form found in this work. It feeds upon itself. Occasionally an idea lingers as for example the still music about five minutes before the end. On the other hand it might discover another motif and develop that until it burns itself out. Although I find this a slightly less impressive achievement than the Concerto, this remains a work worth getting to know.
Now that he is no longer playing professionally the composer must feel overjoyed that he has found a cellist in Truls Mørk who is so in tune with his music. He seems to know when to project and when to accompany. The Scottish Orchestra is superb and the conducting of John Storgårds, is careful, affectionate and thorough. The recording with its beautiful church acoustic of the historic Greyfriars Kirk is clear and well balanced. No composer could want for better.