THE END OF A DAY - The Music of Árni Björnsson
1 Nov 2007
The release of this double album of Árni Björnsson’s music comes soon after the centenary of his birth in December 1905. The recording brings together previously released music and newly-recorded works that display the great versatility of this uniquely expressive composer.
Árni Björnsson was born on a farm in Kelduhverfi in North Iceland and displayed a love of music from an early age. He moved to Reykjavík to pursue formal music studies and quickly established himself as an active working musician in the cultural life of the capital.
In 1944 he travelled to the United Kingdom to study at what is now the Royal Northern College of Music (then the Royal Manchester College of Music) and upon graduation returned home where, amongst other things, he was a founder member of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra (he was Principal Flautist).
In 1952 his life took a tragic turn when he was the victim of a brutal and gratuitous assault resulting in a haemorrhage to the left hemisphere of his brain. This left him with serious disabilities (including crippling memory loss) although, remarkably, his musical gifts remained: he had to relearn how to read, but not how to play the piano. This cruel twist of fate changed his life irrevocably and prevented him from fulfilling his huge potential. He remained, however, a much-loved figure in Reykjavík in his later years, continuing to write music after the long and painstaking rehabilitation process through which he was supported by his staunch and loyal wife Helga.
This record brings together a host of Icelandic vocal talent alongside some of the finest of British chamber musicians, including the soprano Björg Þórhallsdóttir, tenor Gunnar Guðbjörnsson, violinist Elizabeth Layton and pianist James Lisney - who in addition contributes some personal observations on Björnsson’s music in the disc’s accompanying booklet. Also of note is an illuminating essay by the composer’s grandson, David Harald Cauthery - himself a film composer based in Los Angeles - commenting on the changes in Björnsson’s writing style caused by his injuries. Although he was never again able to write with the same degree of fluency as before, Björnsson still had much of value to contribute as a composer. These discs are a valuable testament to a musician of great lyric gifts and a human spirit triumphing in adversity.
The ÁB String Ensemble. Leader: Paul Barritt.
Violins: Paul Barritt, Sophie Langdon, Philippa Honoré, Ben Buckton.
Violas: Jonathan Barritt, Dorothea Vogel.
Celli: Melissa Phelps, Josephine Horder.
Double Bass: Lucy Shaw.
“Icelandic Festival Marching Band” conductor: Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson.
Hafnarfjordur Chamber Choir. Conductor: Helgi Bragason
The ÁB quartet. Voice: Jóhanna Vigdís Arnardótiir
Piano: Agnar Már Magnússon. Bass: Þorgrímur Jónsson. Drums: Scott MacLemore
Review on Classical Source by Ben Hogwood.
To judge by the music on these discs, Icelandic composer Árni Björnsson (1905-1995) was a fascinating musical personality, able to turn his hand to a number of mediums and styles. That he was able to do so is made all the more remarkable in the wake of what the booklet ominously terms a “vicious and gratuitous assault” in 1952.
Pianist James Lisney has become one of the composer’s primary advocates, his awareness of Björnsson’s music made through the Piano Sonata. This he recorded for Olympia in 1996, with the music from that recording faithfully reproduced on the first of the two discs.
The sonata is the most substantial work here, and though its three movements last just under fifteen minutes there is an abundance of melody and keen depth of expression, readily portrayed by Lisney. Echoes of Chopin and early Grieg can be detected in the opening movement but doesn’t prevent the work from having a singular voice, which Lisney finds, especially within the stately tread of the slow movement.
Of equal appeal is A Little Suite for String Orchestra, texturally and stylistically reminiscent of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, but in its close recording intimate and self-contained. A charming ‘Pastorale’ and elegiac ‘Nocturne’ are complemented by the pizzicato ‘Scherzettino’ and jig-like ‘Rondo’, all neatly woven together in a taut performance by the string nonet, lead by Paul Barritt.
Björnsson’s versatility within instrumental music is obvious in the variety of forces making up the first disc. Short, patriotic pieces for brass band close the disc, brightly performed. Yet at the other end of the scale, Jaime Martin and Lisney sympathetically perform the Folksongs for flute and piano. Lisney proves an agile accompanist for these and is thoughtful, too, in the attractive Romances for violin and piano. These are fine chamber pieces in the vein of Wieniawski or Sarasate, with Elizabeth Layton’s full tone complementing their style.
The aforementioned assault on Björnsson meant that for the second half of his life he had to struggle against brain damage. Whilst somehow retaining the talent of composition he was necessarily restricted to smaller forms. Yet here he was able to harness his melodic gift within the set framework of text settings.
The songs are straightforward and direct, affecting in either the rustic ‘Spring Song’, the dramatic climax of ‘The Hermit’ or the simple yet poignant melodic steps of ‘The Poet Is Silent’. The three choral numbers are essentially hymns, and these together with the songs have a Yuletide feel.
Then just when it seems we have heard all sides of this composer he turns in three tango-like dance numbers, winningly performed by Jóhanna Vigdis Arnardótiir. Suitable encore pieces, these, for a collection that delights in whatever measure you wish to indulge it.
The CDs are handsomely presented with full notes, biographies, pictures and texts and translations.
More news >