About this Recording
9.70203 - MÁSSON, Á.: Kammersinfónia / Elja / Ymni / Maes Howe (Ólafsdóttir, Bjørn-Larsen, Caput Ensemble, Sachs)

Áskell Másson (b. 1953)
Elja • Ymni • Maes Howe • Kammersinfonia


Born in Reykjavik in 1953, Áskell Másson could be considered the very epitome of the Icelandic composer: widely travelled, eclectic in his interests and influences, and, in the sheer breadth of his writing, ‘useful, and to the living’, as Britten once described his own music.

Known at the start of his career primarily as a performer and composer for clarinet and percussion, Másson came to international attention at the age of 26 with his Clarinet Concerto, written for Einar Jóhannesson, then principal clarinet of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. This work was featured at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1980. Since then, Másson has written music for the theatre, for films, radio and television, as well as for the concert hall and opera house. Másson’s works to date include the opera The Ice Palace (1983–87), the oratorio Cecilia (2006–8), three symphonies, fifteen concertos, and numerous works for chamber ensemble and orchestra which have been performed throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

Largely self-taught, Másson studied percussion with James Blades in London, and has worked in Copenhagen, Stockholm, London and Paris, collaborating with musicians such as Roger Woodward, Evelyn Glennie, Gert Mortensen and Christian Lindberg. His own distinctive sound world owes much to the influence of individual soloists with whom he has worked, and to his love of Impressionism and so-called world musics. In recent years the influence of Icelandic folk-music has become increasingly audible: the pentatonic harmonies and melodies of tvisöngur (quint song), and the distinctive rhythms of the ancient verse form known as rímur often shape his work.

Elja was composed between 1982 and 1994, in Paris and in Reykjavik, for the Icelandic chamber group, the Caput Ensemble. It was given its première at the 1995 Dark Music Days in Reykjavik. The title is the name of an ancient anonymous Icelandic folk-poem, and conveys the meaning of both energy and a sense of struggle. Scored for chamber orchestra and coloured by the polarised sonorities of piccolo, bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, Elja is a single-movement work in which the eponymous old Icelandic folk-melody weaves its way through an energetic introduction, a calm middle section and a short coda. A heavy, pulsating bass line gives both ballast and fierce momentum to stratospheric violin writing, clarinet multiphonics, and solos from bass clarinet and horn, until tension is suddenly truncated. String sonorities withdraw in a hymn-like in-breath, and pulsing turns to a gentle rumbling. After a moment of near-stasis, a viola solo propels the work on to further blasts of its opening intensity, before a tranquil coda in which the folk-song breathes its last.

Ymni, from Másson’s prolific and highly varied chamber music output, was commissioned by the Society of Icelandic Composers for the 2000 Reykjavik Arts Festival, and was composed on the Danish island of Fyn. It sets fragments of a text from A Garland of Sonnets for Franzisca and the Spring, written in 1912 by the Icelandic poet Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889–1975), shortly before he married Franzisca Jorgensen. The English translation is by the late Bernard Scudder.

Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, piano, high voice, violin, cello and double-bass, Ymni is a seductive miniature rite of spring. Másson’s is a simple and gently melancholic setting of vernal verse by Gunnar Gunnarsson which could almost be a sixteenth-century English pastoral. Two fragments of the poet’s Garland of Sonnets appear as jewels, inset in a fifteen-minute bucolic chamber-musical rhapsody, bright with Másson’s characteristically inventive woodwind writing, and rustling with improvisatory elements in the strings. An uprush of sap, vibrant with thrumming piano triplets, leads to the first entry of the human voice, accompanied by gentle pulsations in the strings. A violin solo, over a low bass clarinet pedal, intensifies the music’s ecstasy, and the oboe awakens clarinet and trilling piano to a burst of dionysiac energy. A return to the opening rustles of spring is soon calmed and subdued, before cello and violin duet, and the trio of woodwind sing an ancient lullaby. The soprano’s final entry calms the music’s energies to a state of wonderment at ‘Nature’s fairy-tales and dreams’.

One of no fewer than fifteen concertos in the composer’s work list, (which includes works for marimba, snare drum, saxophone and trombone) Maes Howe, a concerto for tuba and chamber orchestra, was commissioned by Harri Lidsle, with funds from NOMUS and the Kulturfunden Island-Finland, for the 2001 International Tuba and Euphonium Festival in Lahti, Finland. It was given its première there by the Lahti Sinfonietta conducted by Susanna Malkki. The piece was inspired by the composer’s visit in 1998 to Orkney, and to Maeshowe, a neolithic chambered cairn (c. 2800 BC). This ancient tomb is renowned for its thirty graffiti-like runic inscriptions, testament to a visit in c. 1153 by a group of Viking warriors led by Earl Harald Maddadarson who took shelter there from a snowstorm.

A fourteen-minute concerto, sparsely scored for tuba and a chamber orchestra whose percussion section includes crotales, marimba, bell plates and military bass drum, Maes Howe fuses three distinctive elements of Másson’s writing: considerable technical challenges for the soloist (who is asked to blow and sing into the tuba, trill its valves irregularly, and play devilish glissandi); the evocation of ancient Icelandic folk-melody (in this case, one associated with Egill Skállagrímsson’s poem Thus my mother spoke); and a strong sense of place. The windswept landscape of Orkney is evoked in the cymbals, bass drum and lone woodwind solos which start the work. The dark voice of the tuba in its lowest register, intoning the elusive folk-melody, seems to evoke both the funeral mound’s dark mass and the awed human response. As momentum gathers, the horn sings with the tuba, to the dark tread of low strings, and with the tremulous nerve endings of the violins. A sudden flash of light bursts in with rapid piccolo figures and high repeated notes in the violins, presaging a wild, stomping dance. Could this be the moment when, annually at the winter solstice, the sun’s rays penetrate the burial chamber, illuminating the alcove which once held human remains? The tuba’s descent, and the rumble of the bass drum, lead to a long, cadenza-like passage for the soloist, seemingly improvised, but precisely notated, and focusing the tight, semitonal oscillations which tremble through the work. An Adagio of mellow and elegiac song in the tuba’s ‘head-voice’, leads to a gradual sense of energy dissipating and time slowing down. Bells add to the mingled resonances as the horizon darkens, and only the earth’s breathing remains.

Kammersinfonia is the second of Másson’s three symphonies to date,and was composed between September 1996 and January 1997. The work was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, the Caput Ensemble and conductor Petri Sakari. Given its première in 1997 in Reykjavik, Kammersinfonia has also been performed in Finland, Sweden, New York, and at the Gulbenkian Festival in Portugal.

More folksong material, this time from north-east Iceland, inspires and unifies the four continuous movements of the 24-minute Kammersinfonia. The substantial first movement seems to be a conflict between darkness and light, in its contrasting episodes of sharp, abrupt chords, vibrant sustained breaths, and song which at times is fragmented, transformed into sparkling dance, and whirled into a maelstrom of percussive frenzy. Towards the end, the song strides out in the brass, keens a lament in the cor anglais, and finally becomes luminous in muted violin, flute and clarinet. The second movement, marked Lentissimo, is very short: here the vibraphone is the potent singing voice, with whispering glissandi and an ecstatic violin crescendo, before a slow sense of subsiding is rescued by a chromatic wind ascent into the rollicking scherzo of a third movement. This is a skirling reel, with a feisty solo violin holding its own in a trilling, glissando upbeat of energy leading to the slow, loose-limbed finale. Here the folk-song material is at last broadened, liberated, and finds its apotheosis in little trios of wind and brass, before it soars in free flight in the solo violin.

Hilary Finch

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