Iceland’s Siggi String Quartet makes a strong debut with South of the Circle, presenting works by some of the nation’s finest modern composers along with a striking composition from one of their own. Daniel Bjarnason and Valgeir Sigurðsson provide the entry points, but by the end, there are new names to celebrate and learn.
The CD debut of “Stillshot” represents a full circle of sorts, as Bjarnason’s initial offering, “All Sounds Come to Silence,” debuted on an album from Ísafold. Over the past decade, the artist has continued to go from strength to strength. “Stillshot” is meant to “depict fragmented memories of a noblewoman,” yet doesn’t eliminate a more general reading. The contrast between soft and harsh, low and loud is exquisite; one can imagine a life cycle of turmoil and reconciliation. Siggi String Quartet immediately proves its mettle by tackling a work of such emotional diversity, often turning on a dime to shift to another dynamic. In the finale, the quartet plucks and pulls its way to a satisfying conclusion.
One rubs the eyes when seeing the title “Nebraska” paired with the composer Sigurðsson. Shouln’t that read Springsteen? But no ~ the composer compared notes with a colleague whose residency had been in the Cornhusker State. Finding parallels between Nebraska and his native Iceland, Sigurðsson noted “the sense of isolation, timelessness, and wide open spaces.” This being said, the opening is dramatic, a widescreen explosion of color like a dusty sunset behind a barreling tornado. Things calm down in “Landlocked,” but the impression has been made: wonderful and terrible things can happen at any time, and although they can be seen coming, one may not be able to escape. “Erosion” returns to the excitement, yet is frustratingly short; in “Plainsong,” the cropduster makes a gentle landing.
Haukur Tómasson is well-known across Scandanavia, although still a relatively unknown name in the States. He’s one of a number of Icelandic composers who seems poised to break in a big way, and the percussive “Serimonia” (written for the quartet) is a succinct expression of his talent. By alternating restraint with outburst, the piece recalls the tone of the opener, while the midsection’s staccato strings honor Penderecki. In contrast, the career of pianist and composer Mamiko Dís Ragnarsdóttir has just begun; her first album was released in 2016, and “For Flowers” was debuted by the quartet last year. This composition delves into color and impression, reflecting the experience of viewing a painting by countryman Eggert Pétursson. The album’s longest single-movement composition, “For Flowers” is also its tenderest, no surprise given the subject matter. Yet within this quarter-hour there is great variation, like the unfurling of petals in the sun and the fading of sharpness over time.
This brings us to one of the quartet’s violinists, Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, who stands among giants and fits right in. The four-part “Opacity” plays perfectly off of Bjarnason’s piece, waiting for the second movement to shift tone. As it turns out, Sveinbjarnardóttir has been operating for nearly two decades, working with artists as diverse as Björk and the aforementioned Penderecki (everything’s connected!), releasing a solo album in 2012 and scoring an acclaimed documentary. As a founding member of Siggi String Quartet, she demonstrates her generosity by giving each member a spotlight: four movements, four leads. The title track (for solo cello) is the most immediate, but the combination provides a perfect opportunity for a victory lap. South of the Circle is a joyous expression of modern Icelandic chamber music: one of the world’s smallest nations with one of the world’s biggest sounds. (Richard Allen)