Páll Ragnar Pálsson‘s new album is dark and mysterious, reflecting the ravages of war and the uncertainties of time. Yet one can’t help but view it through the lens of love. This is because the album would not exist without the love story of the Icelandic composer and the wife he met in Estonia. Tui Hirv‘s operatic, internationally-recognized voice graces the majority of these movements, and even when the texts are dark, one remembers that grace is still possible in the midst of tumult ~ and can seem even sweeter in contrast. Iceland’s Caput Ensemble brings this music to life, while the title work contains recitations by Icelandic poet Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir.
And so we trace this love story back to 2011, when the young couple was living the “slow-paced life of young parents in the countryside-like outskirts of Tallinn.” There’s great tenderness here, although the early glissandos are foreboding. Violin, piano and clarinet flirt with each other, stealing private moments between public conflicts. Folk hymns from Vormsi echo through the years, now given new bearings. Composed in lighter times, the hymns have survived the island’s evacuation, and now live as exiles recalling the sun and waves. The song and the album end in a whisper. But like Time’s Arrow, we’re headed in the opposite direction, to “Midsummer’s Night,” which Gunnarsdóttir wrote for her own husband-to-be, and presented to Páll and Tui as a wedding gift. Two countries, two love stories! Harp and percussion set the piece apart, the landscape dotted with notes like Shakespeare’s sprites. “Glowing into you, the bliss of a new day, holding hands;” the air is filled with magic.
The title track may seem intimidating in title and timbre ~ and Pálsson admits that atonement is his “approach to composition in music and life” ~ but the trajectory is toward inner peace. In order to be effective, the process of atonement must draw a line between the before and after, the old spirit and the new. It’s tempting to think that the old period was prior to love, but the theme can be universalized: anxiety to acceptance, fear to calm. And while such transfiguration might not be reflected in “Stalker’s Monologue,” sparked by the Tarkovsky film, it is evident in “Lucidity,” the album’s only instrumental selection. The lack of lyrics allows the listener to focus on the Caput Ensemble, in particular clarinetist Guðni Franzson. The piece is awash in complexity, suggesting questions and conundrums. As the work descends into near-silence, suggesting deep thought, light chimes enter like glimmers of insight. “Where does it all lead?” asks Pálsson, quoting Patti Smith. “It leads to each other.” Could it be that simple? In the heart of such an intricate work, might a single bell note be the highlight? In a ravaged world, might love endure? The comforting answer is a quiet, resounding yes. (Richard Allen)
Available here (including a stream of “Midsummer’s Night”)