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Atmosphériques, Vol. 1 / Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Atmosphériques, Vol. 1 / Iceland Symphony Orchestra

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Note: this double-disc release contains both a CD and a Blu-ray Audio disc. The former will play on any CD player, and the latter will only play on devices with Blu-ray read capability.

Daniel Bjarnason writes: "at the risk of getting canceled by my musician colleagues, I’m going to divulge a dark truth about classical music: it’s never as captivating or molecule-altering for anyone as it is for us on stage. Which is why I often find classical records, especially those of the orchestral persuasion, so underwhelming. So not … immediate. Which is why I am approaching zealot status in my admiration for Sono Luminus and the way in which it submerges listeners within reach of the Atlantis that is the on-stage experience. Which is why, save for live performance, the often inimitable new-music originating in, or in proximity to, Iceland (homeland to an unreasonable percentage of the composers living rent-free in my headphones for more than a decade) has found its most ardent advocate and most clarion amplifier in Winchester, Virginia. Certainly its exceptional national orchestra has. Despite a bewildering insistence by journalists to characterize music written by those with Icelandic surnames as a monolith, the entries on this tracklist are as singular as hand blown glass.

"The inclusion of American sonic clairvoyant Missy Mazzoli is a helpful geographic foil here, but there is one element fusing all of these inventions: Your person is about to feel minuscule or massive, by contrast to – or motivated by – these sounds. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music is often intimidatingly cyclopean, and Catamorphosis at times mimics the cosmic indifference of Lovecraftian deities, but it simultaneously introduces an iridescent hope I have not encountered before in her music. Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) catapults us from one end of a pulsing solar system to the other while Daníel Bjarnason’s From Space I Saw Earth improbably stretches perspective from earth to the moon and back, seeming somehow both terrestrial and paranormal within a single phrase. Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's Clockworking bridges a similar expanse, coexisting within the measurable realm of time-keeping … and the immeasurable realm of what occurs as the seconds tick by. Is Bára Gísladóttir's ÓS gasping in air, or desperately exhaling? Whatever your observation, and as with every waypoint on this illusory itinerary, the answer is likely: both."


The range of sonorities they [the Iceland Symphony Orchestra] bring out in Gísladóttir’s ÓS is viscerally gripping – rushing strings, apocalyptically deep wind notes and percussion fusillades…Mazzoli’s engaging Sinfonia and Sigfúsdóttir’s Clockworking provide textural, stylistic and expressive contrast. Sono Luminus’s sound is top-notch. Enjoy!

-- Gramophone

I listened to these two discs one after another: the first is a normal CD, which I listened to to familiarize myself with this music. This is all definitely in my wheelhouse: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s CATAMORPHOSIS, from 2020; Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), from 2014; Daníel Bjarnason’s From Space I Saw Earth, from 2019; Maria Sigfúsdóttir’s Clockworking for Orchestra, from 2020; and Bára Gísladóttir’s ÓS, written for the Iceland Centenary in 2018. It’s beautifully played by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, directed by Daniel Bjarnason.

Only a few months ago I reviewed Missy Mazzoli’s latest album, Dark With Excessive Bright, which also includes her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), with Tim Weiss conducting the Arctic Philharmonic. It seems like high-latitude orchestras are best situated to play this piece about the Music of the Spheres, situated as they are far from the noise of the world’s cities, and closer to the light show of the Aurora Borealis. I prefer the performance of the Iceland players by the narrowest of margins in this important work, helped as it is by the sound engineering of Sono Luminus.

And it’s the audio that brings us to the second disc: a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc with the identical repertoire, totalling just under an hour, in remarkable Surround Sound. As I’ve mentioned a few times in my reviews, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the audiophile component of recording, but listening to this Blu-ray knocked me for a loop. This will surely become a demonstration disc for high-end Surround Sound systems.

Iceland is a small country, but its music, both classical and popular, has the huge scope and universal appeal of the Sagas. This is a distinguished addition to a long and distinguished artistic tradition.

-- Music for Several Instruments

Boasting a formidable ensemble of ninety full-time musicians, Iceland's national orchestra is the perfect conduit for these composers's bold imaginings. Atmospheriques is an apt title given how much its oft-ethereal material imposes itself. Melody is downplayed in favour of mood, texture, and presence, the latter qualities architecturally established in the form of grandiose blocks of sound. The music at times plays like the slow, heaving movements of an enormous geological mass.

All five works are immersive and dynamic creations, yet there are critical differences between them, something Bjarnason emphasizes in asserting that each of the five is “as singular as hand-blown glass.”

That said, one description applied to Thorvaldsdottir's music, that it's “an ecosystem of sounds, where materials continuously grow in and out of each other,” is one that could as easily be applied to some of the other works. At twenty-one minutes, her CATAMORPHOSIS, first up on the hour-long release, is epic on purely temporal grounds, let alone structural. Such durational expanse grants her a huge canvas upon which to paint, which she does using flurries of glissando-swooping strings, rumbling sonorities, and orchestral micro-chatter. The music convulses and broods, but there are also lyrical episodes that allow for peaceful contemplation. As the piece advances towards its conclusion, it begins to suggest the disturbed sleep of some soon-to-be-awakened behemoth, with all the imminent activity that entails. CATAMORPHOSIS flows seamlessly into Mazzoli's Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), whose shimmering strings and muted horns exude a starry-eyed quality that positions it far from the geological ruptures that ground Thorvaldsdottir's piece. Mystery permeates Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) too, but in this case it's the kind of mystery one associates with ineffable extraterrestrial expanses. The ethereal character of her piece carries over into Bjarnason's From Space I Saw Earth, whose sweeping tonal masses are so toweringly large it seems as if they're extending from one planetary realm to another.

Sigfúsdóttir's reputation precedes her on the recording. In addition to establishing herself as a composer, she's a violinist well-known for her membership in the band amiina and for touring with Sigur Rós from 2000 to 2008. Compared to the other works, Clockworking for Orchestra is dramatic but also a tad less tumultuous; its keening strings are also explicitly grounded by chiming mallet patterns whose interlock lends the piece a stability less defined elsewhere.

Like Sigfúsdóttir, the Copenhagen-based Bára Gísladóttir is a composer and musician, her instrument the double bass. Gísladóttir's contribution to the album, ÓS, picks up where her recent Sono Luminus album SILVA left off with a blistering textural exploration where strings swarm, horns groan in anguish, and percussive surfaces are violently battered. One of the more impressive things about Atmospheriques, music aside, involves sequencing. While there is a dramatic shift in tone and style from the penultimate piece to the closing one, the album generally advances smoothly from one setting to the next, which makes the recording register as a cohesive singular statement as opposed to a compilation of unrelated works.

-- Textura

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  • Release Specifications

    • Number of Discs: 2
    • Release Date:
    • Label: Sono Luminus
    • UPC/Barcode: 053479226709
    • Item Number: DSL-92267