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Susanne Kessel Iceland OC 813 CD
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FormatAudio CD
Ordering NumberOC 813
Release date05/05/2008

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      Piano Music by Icelandic Composers: Þorkell Sigurbjoernsson Johann G. Johannson · Atli Ingolfsson · Haukur Tómasson Atli Heimir Sveinsson · Victor Urbancic · Arni Egilsson Jorunn Viðar · Hafliði Hallgrimsson · Páll Isolfsson Sveinbjoern Sveinbjoernsson · Jón Leifs · Björk / Leon Milo
      Susanne Kessel, piano

      Since the mid-20th century, Iceland has developed its own scene for contemporary classical music. Icelandic composers went to Europe or the USA to study closely with the musical avant-garde. Amazingly many of these returned to their home country and developed a style that unites traditional and folkloristic Icelandic music with contemporary western music. After intensive contact with Icelandic music and many trips to the island of glaciers, geysers and moss, German pianist Susanne Kessel now presents a cross-section of Icelandic piano music culminating with an arrangement of a song by Iceland’s currently most popular musician: Björk.

      New Music from Iceland

      Icelandicity has something to do with landscape. In my case, more like the smell of landscape. It‘s the smell of heath. And the sound of landscape: A golden plover yakking from afar. Combine the above with the smell of a carpet while seated in front of a huge Telefunken piece of radio furniture and you get an extract of my childhood. Listening to „Sjómannalög“ – mariner’s songs – and Icelandic lieder in the national-romantic style common to the output of the pioneers of Icelandic composition. Then along comes the horizon, also on radio: They started broadcasting contemporary music from abroad. I recall illuminations while listening alone in the dark.

      Atli Ingólfsson

      Susanne Kessel about this album

      When I traveled to Iceland for the first time in 2005 to perform a classical piano recital and carry out several interviews with Icelandic musicians for German radio, I first did some research on the country and its people, culture and worthwhile sites. To the great surprise of the Icelandic concert audience, I had learned several Icelandic piano works to play as encores. I knew a few names of composers and of course, many wonderful songs of the internationally known Icelandic pop singers and bands. I also knew that Iceland had a very individual and expressive musical culture. But I hardly knew anything about Iceland’s “classical music”.

      I was all the more surprised when I found meter-long shelves with scores of highly interesting Icelandic piano works during a visit to the music library of the Music Information Center of Iceland. I had never expected to run across such treasures!

      Iceland’s classical music tradition is relatively young. Within the fairly short period of circa 100 years, i.e. since the beginning

      of the 20th century, it developed in colorful facets while incorporating almost all classical epochs as in time lapse photography. The music composed today in Iceland is oriented to international streams of new music as well as to old Icelandic music traditions, resulting in a charming mosaic of various genres that all exist next to each other.

      I spoke with various classical composers (Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Árni Egilsson, Atli Ingólfsson and Haukur Tómasson), with the director of the Reykjavík Music School (Stefan Edelstein), the choral director of the university (Hákon Leifsson) and with the keyboarder, pianist and composer of the pop band Sigur Rós (Kjartan Sveinsson).

      These musicians gave me insights into the unique history of Icelandic music, told me much personal information and continually showed me how inseparable the Icelanders are with their country and likewise how burning their longing for international exchange is. The great interest for everything new, the openness to the foreign and unusual is in my opinion a typical Icelandic characteristic. Without this capability, the rapid development of Iceland’s culture during the past 100 years, and its achievement of an international level, would not have been possible.

      Iceland’s music history is a treasure trove. Due to its isolated geographic location in the North Sea, individual musical forms remained alive over many centuries. The Icelandic language has also remained nearly unchanged since the “landnám” in the 9th century (the settlement of the land by the Norwegian Vikings).

      Nonetheless noteworthy is Iceland’s modern musical life. For its current population of circa 300,000 inhabitants, Iceland has the densest network of music schools in the world. With help of European musicians who immigrated during World War II, the country developed an outstanding music school system which offers children and youth a very high level of musical training. A qualified university study of music is also possible in Iceland, although young musicians often study in Europe or the USA. Many Icelandic musicians and composers return home after their stint abroad and bring their experiences to the Icelandic musical scene, which has

      achieved an international level within only a few decades.

      The first generation of young composers who grew up after Iceland’s declaration of independence in 1944 studied at the end of the 1950s and during the 1960s at the international centers of new music, in order to get out of their island-isolation as quickly as possible and experience the newest streams of 20th century music. These two aspects – “ancient” music tradition and “contemporary New Music” – result in the unique pull between the ancient and the modern that can be repeatedly discovered in many compositions.

      The wild nature of Iceland, its geysers, waterfalls, its rough climate and the breathtakingly beautiful landscape are an additional source of inspiration that daily enters the imagination and whose fascination cannot be avoided by any artist.

      In 2007 I performed again in Iceland, this time during the “Dark Music Days” festival. At this time, I had the idea of releasing a CD of Icelandic piano music covering 100 years and various styles of the island’s classical music. The Icelandic composers I talked to were very excited about the project. Because almost all classical composers compose for the piano, this instrument is predestined to present an overview of the country’s literature. I was actively supported in my work by many musicians as well as by the MIC Iceland, and I would like to give my thanks to all for the cooperation and the rehearsals in Iceland.

      I would like to thank both the City of Bonn and icelandair for their support and sponsoring. Thanks also go to Peter Gebhard: the famous photographer and journalist provided his wonderful photos of Iceland for this booklet. Atli Heimir Sveinsson and Árni Egilsson, as well as American composer Leon Milo wrote new piano pieces for my CD “Iceland”, and to them I owe special thanks!

      The Composers

      Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (*1938) is one of the most influential personalities in Iceland’s musical world. He studied piano and composition, at first in Iceland and then in the USA with R.G. Harris, K. Gaburo and L.A. Hiller as well as at the Darmstadt Vacation Courses. He teaches theory and composition at the Reykjavík College of Music. He organizes a number of music festivals there and also works for the Icelandic Radio Broadcasting Company as a writer and announcer for programs on contemporary music. His opera Grettir premiered at the 2004 Festival of Young Artists in Bayreuth.

      Þorkell Sigurbjörnssons dedicated the Hans-Variationen to a pianist friend of his named Hans Pálsson. The harmonies of old Icelandic folk music are successfully combined with the gesture of a virtuoso piano movement. The abrupt, sparse harmony of Icelandic music prescribed by the theme is dressed up in modern pianistic vestments of intoxicating colors and irrepressible joy.

      Jóhann G. Jóhannsson is emerging as one of the country’s best kept secrets. He is revered by his prodigious Icelandic composers as much as by international contemporaries such as Daniel Agust of Gus Gus and Emiliana Torrini, and artists from Björk to Sigur Rós could surely recall his number one hits on Icelandic radio throughout the years. In 1988, he received an Icelandic gold record for his song Help Them or Hjálpum þeim which he performed with a chorus of the country’s premier artists as Iceland’s contribution to the Live Aid relief movement.

      The dreamy pop ballad Ég er að tala um þig is exemplary for the outstanding quality of Icelandic pop music. A simple but insistent melody is harmonized naturally and with self-assured taste.

      Atli Ingólfsson (*1962) studied classical guitar, theory, composition and philosophy in Iceland. After publishing a volume of poetry, he continued his training, first at the Milan Conservatory with Davide Anzaghi, then in 1988 with Franco Donatoni at the Accademie Chigiana in Siena and in Paris with Gérard Grisey, whose assistant he became. Atli Ingólfsson’s compositions are performed at many renowned festivals.

      The sentimental, romantic and highly virtuosic …ma la melodia is actually untypical for the young composer. Its romantic style is a conscious artistic decision. The letters of the Icelandic word for “cock”, represented in musical notes, result in a sighing melody. Such experiments, which are not necessarily completely earnest, but which are pushed to the limit, are part of the creative work of any serious composer.

      Haukur Tómasson (*1960) was awarded the 2004 Nordic Council Music Prize, the greatest honor awarded to a Nordic composer. The music of Haukur Tómasson is vibrant and scintillating, characterized by intense rhythmic activity, bright, colorful timbres, and a keen ear for novel and effective instrumental combinations. Tómasson´s earliest compositions use the numbers of the Fibonacci series to organize durations, intervals and formal proportions (Octette, Eco del passato). His later works (Spiral, Strati, Offspring) are examples of the composer’s ‘spiral technique’, the chaconne-like development of an underlying chord progression. In the late 1990s Tómasson also began using Icelandic folk material as a basis for his compositions (Rhym, Long Shadow).

      In the piano composition Brotnir Hljómar, chords are constantly subjected to change. The abstract idea of “chord” is deconstructed in all possible manners, rhythmicized and goes through the most varied moods and conditions. Although the piece is not program music, Haukur Tómasson develops a musical language with his pulsating harmonies that inspires listeners to dream of wide Icelandic landscapes, icy glaciers and precipitous deserts of lava.

      Atli Heimir Sveinsson (*1938) is considered to be the most important representative of Iceland’s current musical landscape. In 1959, he studied composition at the Academy of Music in Cologne with Günter Raphael, instrumentation with Rudolf Petzold, composition with Bernd Alois Zimmermann and piano with Hans-Otto Schmid-Neuhaus. He also studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen in the context of the Cologne Courses for New Music, and with Gottfried Michael König in Bilthoven. After completing his studies, Atli Heimir Sveinsson returned to Iceland and was instrumental from then on in making contemporary European music known in his home country.

      Three completely different works by Atli Heimir Sveinsson can be heard on this recording. His collection entitled Oþur Steinsins consists of thirty short pieces for piano, each with an entirely different character. Oþur Steinsins No. IV, with its magical belcanto style, sounds a little like the beginning of the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Af hreinu hjarta is Atli Heimir Sveinsson’s musical setting of a poem by Attila Józef. It is a slow waltz with a pleasant, extravagant mood. The short piece Albumblatt, with its hammering repetitions that nervously stumble out of the rhythm is an individual piece that Atli Heimir Sveinsson wrote specifically for Susanne Kessel.

      Victor Urbancic (1903–1958) was raised in Vienna as son of a famous doctor. He studied piano, organ and composition; his positions included a post as kapellmeister at the Josefstadt theater, which had just been reorganized by Max Reinhardt. His meteoric career, with many successful concerts as a pianist, accompanist and conductor, came to an abrupt end with Hitler’s 1933 seizure of power in Germany. In 1938 – Urbancic was now Assistant Director of the Graz Conservatory – he was forced to leave Austria with his family because his wife was Jewish. He received a teaching offer in Iceland, where he then taught theory, piano, composition and music history. He also volunteered as organist and choir director of the small Catholic community in Reykjavík. His students include practically a whole generation of Icelandic composers who studied composition between the late 1930s on into the 1950s. His influence can still be felt to the present day.

      The duet Brüderlein komm tanz mit mir from the opera Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck is the theme of the variation cycle Caprices Mignons über ein Kinderlied. With great love of detail and differentiated instructions for articulation, the passagework in each variation becomes successively more brilliant.

      Jórunn Viðar (*1918) studied piano in Reykjavík and continued her studies at the Academy of Music in Berlin. She studied composition with V. Giannini at the Juilliard School in New York from 1943 to 1945 and studied piano again in Vienna from 1959 to 1960. Jórunn Viðar is in great demand as a piano teacher, pianist and composer in Iceland. Her songs, which have a fixed place in Iceland’s concert halls, are considered to be particularly outstanding.

      Jórunn Viðar’s Four Meditations on Icelandic Folk Themes are played frequently in Iceland. Two of these meditations can be heard on this CD. Both are based on old Icelandic folk music motives. Meditation No. 1 is a theme and variations composed a little in the style of Béla Bartók; in this recording, it is seamlessly followed by Mediation No. 4. As in a romantic piano etude, right-hand arpeggios accompany the melody in the left hand.

      Hafliði Hallgrímsson was born in 1941 in the small town of Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland.

      He began playing the cello at the age of ten and studied in Reykjavík and at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome. On returning from Rome, he continued his studies in London with Derek Simpson at the Royal Academy of Music. The following year he began compositional studies with Dr Alan Bush and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. On leaving the Academy, he remained in Britain, eventually making his home in Scotland on being appointed Principal Cellist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Despite his success as a performer, the urge to compose became stronger and in 1983 Hallgrímsson left his post with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to devote himself to this activity full-time. He was awarded the prestigious Nordic Council Prize in 1986.

      Hafliði Hallgrimsson’s Lullaby on a Winter’s Night transplants the listener into a cold Icelandic night with a wonderful melody, romantic harmonies and programmatic tone-painting. The clearly set octaves in the melody sound cool and icy; the gently dappled pianissimo scales in the second part of the work sound like delicate snowflakes or like the long, luminous traces of the Northern lights in a winter’s night sky.

      Páll Ísólfsson was born in 1893 in Stokkseyri, a poor fishing village on the south coast of the island. He travelled to Leipzig in the autumn of 1913 and started his studies in composition with Max Reger and organ with Karl Straube, the famous organist and choirmaster of St. Thomas. He was introduced to the organ art of Bach and Reger, himself becoming an organist of the highest order. Later he went to Paris for additional studies with Joseph Bonnet. His return to Iceland in 1921 almost certainly meant the abandonment of the international career that lay open for him. Instead he devoted his energy and his exceptional musical knowledge to building up of a new musical scene in the recently emancipated and independend Iceland.

      Páll Isólfsson composed in the style of the great romantic composers like Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin and Max Reger. This is particularly evident in the choice of the titles of his works: “Albumblatt”, “Humoresque”, “Romanze” or “Ballade”. His Impromptu in D Minor quotes his own Piano Concerto.

      Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847–1927) was Iceland’s first professionally trained pianist and composer. He first studied theology, and later composition, in Copenhagen and Leipzig with Carl Reinecke. In the 19th century, musical opportunities in Iceland were still very limited, causing the composer to make England his new home. Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson composed a great number of romantic songs and poetic chamber music and wrote the Icelandic national anthem “Lofsöngur”. He returned to Iceland in 1922, where the Icelandic parliament (Althing) granted him a lifelong salary.

      Vikivaki is an Icelandic dance from the early 17th century. It was highly popular for a long time and was danced at wild festivals that might last up to fourteen days. In the 18th century, however, it was banned by the church. Many contemporary Icelandic composers quote Vikivaki rhythms in their works. In Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson’s version, the dance is heard in a classical piano movement and is reminiscent of lavish festivals on Icelandic farms.

      Árni Egilsson, (*1939), has earned an international reputation as a Double Bass soloist. He was brought to the United States by the late Sir John Barbirolli to play with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. A versatile instrumentalist, equally comfortable in jazz and classical venues he has recorded a classical solo album with Vladimir Ashkenazy and a jazz album with Ray Brown. Egilsson is highly regarded as a leading session player in the orchestras of the Los Angeles recording studios serving as Principal Bassplayer for most of Hollywood’s top composers. Árni Egilsson has been a Professor of Double Bass at California State University, Northridge. In recent years he has become well known as a composer of works for Double Bass, Chamber Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra as well as Solo Voice and Choral works.

      The piano piece Borealis uses sounds to describe a clear Icelandic winter night with one of the most beautiful natural phenomena of all: the aurora borealis. Árni Egilsson wrote this piano work specifically for Susanne Kessel.

      Jón Leifs (1899–1968) is one of the most noteworthy and internationally recognized Icelandic composers of the 20th century. He uses elements of Icelandic folk music in his works. In his efforts to create a musical language that reflects Iceland’s cultural inheritance, Leifs found material in traditional folk songs, the “Rímur” and the medieval liturgical ballades, the “Tvisöngur”. In 1916, Jón Leifs followed two of his countrymen to the Academy of Music in Leipzig. He was married to the Jewish pianist Annie Riethof and lived in Wernigerode and from time to time in Baden- Baden, until he and his family were allowed to leave Germany for Iceland in 1944. The story of his life was documented in the 1996 Icelandic film “Tár úr steini” (Tears of Stone).

      Rímnadanslög are dances based on the old-Icelandic Rímur, a rhyming tradition performed in sprechgesang. Frequent meter changes are characteristic for this art. These changes arise due to the fact that not every line of a poem has the same number of syllables. The music orients itself precisely to the number of syllables of the respective line of text and breaks off at the end of the line to continue with the next line of text.

      Björk Guðmundsdóttir (*1965), is Iceland’s best-known musician. She began her career with classical music training. She took her first music lessons at the age of five in voice, piano and flute. She released her first solo album at the age of eleven. Björk has been a member of various bands, including the “Sugarcubes”, which received international acclaim. After this band broke up, she began her solo career with the solo album “Debut” in 1993. In following years she won thirteen Grammy Awards, one Oscar and two Golden Globes, one of them for her role in Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark.

      Björk’s songs are among the most fascinating of the international pop branch. Unfortunately, there are no piano arrangements of her songs, and it makes no sense to play only the melody line accompanied by a few chords, because Björk’s music – in addition to the sound of her voice – lives particularly from its electronic effects.

      American composer Leon Milo, a specialist for electronic music, wrote a transcription of the song I Miss You for piano and electronics. The live-piano level corresponds to a second piano-level that was created electronically from live-piano recordings and which seems to move through the room around the live piano. Both levels are symbolic for the subject matter of the song: a girl painfully misses the one she loves. Only: she has not met him yet.

      Leon Milo (*1956), American composer and percussionist, creates music in which instruments, electronics, natural and synthetic sounds are unified. His works have been presented all over the world and include instrumental and electroacoustic music for the concert hall, dance, film, television, radio, public sound installations and museums. Having received his Master of Music degree from the Juilliard School, he worked as percussionist and timpanist in orchestras in the US, Israel and Norway. His major studies in composition were with Professor Leonard Stein, William Kraft and Luciano Berio. Invited in 1987 to the Sundance Institute in Utah to develop film music projects, he now composes regularly for European television and Cinema. In 1990, he received a Fulbright Fellowship for composition study in Paris. He began incorporating new technologies into his works and soon after was selected to take part in the one year course in composition and computer music at IRCAM, Paris. Leon Milo and Susanne Kessel have recently founded the Duo “Pianowaves” – a Duo which plays works for piano, percussion and electronics.

      Professional photographer and book author Peter Gebhard is among the most renowned lecturers in Germany. The Leica Camera AG has honored his slide-reportages with the “Leicavision” rating. He tells stories in words and pictures that are as far-removed from stereotypes as could be, and in which his intensive research and openness for the regions in question and their inhabitants are obvious.

      In addition to his live lectures, Peter Gebhard has published numerous books and calendars as well as photo- and text-reportages. GEO, Stern and Merian are among the magazines which have published his work.

      His current and most extensive project until now, panamericana, appeared in fall 2005 as a live multimedia reportage as well as a large-format illustrated book published by Frederking & Thaler. It was written after five years of intensive travels, photography and research along the fabled routes of the Americas. The project was featured by renowned magazines and on TV, and the GEO magazine acknowledged it as the “Portfolio of the Month”.

      2006 saw the beginning of Peter Gebhard’s cooperation with voxtours, the most popular German TV travel magazine. In summer 2007, the photographer traveled to South America with a television team for a collaborative Voxtours reportage that followed the tracks of his panamericana Project.

      The photographs in this booklet date from 2003 and 2004. They are taken from the book Island – Insel aus Feuer und Eis (Iceland – Island of Fire and Ice), published by Verlag Weltsichten, Saalfeld.

      For further information, please see: www.peter-gebhard.de

      Tracklist hide

      CD 1
      • Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (*1938)
        • 1.Hans-Variationen12:21
      • Jóhann G. Jóhannsson (*1947)
        • 2.Ég er að tala um þig05:07
      • Atli Ingólfsson (*1962)
        • 3.…ma la melodia04:29
      • Haukur Tómasson (*1960)
        • 4.Brotnir Hljómar07:14
      • Atli Heimir Sveinsson (*1938)
        • 5.Óður Steinsins Nr. IV03:58
        • 6.Af hreinu hjarta02:38
        • 7.Albumblatt an Susanne Kessel01:38
      • Victor Urbancic (1903–1958)
        • 8.Caprices Mignons über ein Kinderlied07:41
      • Jórunn Viðar (*1918)
        • 9.Meditationen über isländische Volksthemen (No. 1 & No. 4)05:20
      • Hafliði Hallgrímsson (*1941)
        • 10.Lullaby on a Winters´ Night03:04
      • Páll Ísólfsson (1893–1974)
        • 11.Impromptu02:44
      • Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847–1927)
        • 12.Vikivaki02:26
      • Árni Egilsson (*1939)
        • 13.Borealis05:24
      • Jón Leifs (1899–1968)
        • 14.Rímnadanslög op. 11 No. 303:06
        • 15.Rímnadanslög op. 11 No. 202:44
        • 16.Rímnadanslög op. 11 No. 401:57
      • Björk (*1965) / Leon Milo (*1956)
        • 17.I Miss You (Transcription for Piano and Electronics)04:43
      • Total:01:16:34