LEIFS:  Iceland Overture, Op. 9.  Requiem, Op. 33b. Loftr-Suite, Op. 6a.  RÈminiscence du Nord, Op. 40. Hekla, Op. 52.  Elegy, Op. 53
Motet Choir of Hallgrim's Church/Schola Cantorum/Iceland Symphony Orchestra, En Shao, cond.
BIS CD 1030  (F) (DDD) TT:  64:41

A number of musical works shocked audiences at their premieres, in particular Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Antheil's Ballet MÈchanique, and VarËse's AmÈriques. So did Hekla by Jón Leifs at its premiere in 1964, but few heard about this startling music as the premiere took place in Finland and the word apparently didn't get around. Hekla next was given in Helsinki University Hall October 2, 1964 at a meeting of the Council of Nordic Composers, understandably baffling audiences and outraging critics. No one had ever heard anything like it—and there really isn't anything else like it.

Leifs was born in Iceland in 1899 and died in 1968. This CD contains works from the various periods of his life but of most interest is Hekla, one of three compositions depicting Icelandic natural phenomena. Completed in 1966, it describes the eruption of Hekla in 1947, the largest of the 20th Century, which Leifs happened to witness. The music is one massive, ever-intensifying depiction of volcanic eruption, beginning quietly but graphically increasing in intensity and power reaching a tumultuous climax during which one hears a brief chorus (almost overwhelmed by the massive orchestra/percussion sound), singing:

"In the dark depths, violent cries of death./ There the red flames carried/ The steaming lava across the land."

Leifs scored Hekla for orchestra and a huge complement of percussion.  Nineteen percussion players are needed.  "Percussion" instruments required are "rocks with a musical quality," steel ship's chains, anvils (shades of Rheingold?), sirens, church bells, shotguns and canons.  Eggert Palsson, principal timpanist of the Iceland Symphony, describes how they tried to follow the composer's intentions.  There was a search for "musical rocks" and they finally found some that seemed to have a pitch, the anvil sound was provided by utilizing large pieces of steel tubing struck with steel hammers, the sound of sirens was made by semi-analogue synthesizers, and as church bells requested by the composer would have weighed half a ton each, plate bells in large sizes were used.  As the chains are to play short notes as well as sustained tones a frame was built for the chains to move through.  And the composer asked for a "large wooden stump on wooden floor" but as they were recording in an area with a stone floor, they used a big wooden hammer (shades of Mahler 6?) striking it against a large wooden box.  Shotguns and cannons are to play fast passages which meant that these sounds would have to be produced digitally.  Palsson said that the sheer quantity of sound was so loud that many musicians used earplugs during rehearsals and the recording sessions.

The brief choral ending was not used at the 1964 premiere nor at the second performance in 1968 when Paul Zukovsky led the Iceland premiere, so the performance on this recording is the first "complete" version. Sound on this recording is spectacular to say the least.  BIS recordings always are technically state-of-the-art, and this is no exception.  With the masses of sound it's difficult to identify all of the instruments, but perhaps that is what the composer intended.  There is another recording of Hekla with Leif Segerstam conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.  It's the final track on a CD called "The Earthquake Experience" issued several years ago. (Ondine ODE 894). Segerstam is about two minutes faster than Shao and has the advantage of close miking on some of the percussion. But the new BIS recording sounds far more ominous, has more deep bass (so important in this score),  and  a wider dynamic range.

The CD begins with Iceland Overture written in 1926 utilizing, like so many of Leif's works, folk music of Iceland. Towards the end a chorus sings several folk songs. A year earlier Leifs wrote a set of incidental pieces for Goldra-Loftr, a play about black magic that had great effect on the young composer.  The gentle Requiem for a cappella mixed choir, RÈminiscence du Nord and Elegy, both for string orchestra, are the antithesis of Hekla.  The composer's life was marked by tragedy and disappointment; much of his sadness is reflected in these works.

The performances are superb. Young Chinese conductor En Shao, now associate conductor of  the BBC Philharmonic, obviously understands this music, and the orchestra acquits itself admirably. The overture and Elegy have been recorded before; the others are  premiere recordings. And for those who are audio-minded, this is essential.