Occurrence is the conclusion of a masterful trilogy that began with 2017’s Recurrence and continued with 2019’s Concurrence. All three are published by Sono Luminus, who has captured lightning in a bottle with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Over the past two decades, Daniel Bjarnason has gone from strength to strength as conductor and composer, and this series has been a showcase for the vast breadth of Icelandic composition. Perhaps we are getting a bit greedy, but these discs would make an amazing box set.
The album launches with Bjarnason’s own “Violin Concerto,” written for lead violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Nearly half an hour in length, this piece steps steps softly on a quiet carpet, but soon begins to veer wildly from introspective to proclamation ~ a hallmark of Bjarnason’s work. Suffused with emotion, the concerto seems like an imploding storm, especially when the violin establishes a call-and-response with the full orchestra. But even this cannot last, as so much tension is bubbling beneath. The brass and drums erupt like an attack of the winter gods. Ten minutes in, the entire composition falls hushed, like a sleeping dragon; one can even hear its breath. We all know what’s going to happen next; we just don’t know how or when. After a thick, cathartic rush, the composition revisits the friendly whistling of its opening moments, only to dive once again into the maelstrom. Will a better composition be committed to disc this year? The bar is set so high, all we can say to other composers is good luck.
Veronique Vaka is the next out of the gate with “Lendh,” already a multiple award nominee and as such a worthy track to follow “Violin Concerto.” While half the length of the preceding piece, it bursts with energy and power, curling like Jörmungandr and preparing to strike. “Lendh” means “open land,” of which Iceland has an abundance, as does Vaka’s original land of Canada. Like so much of the music in this series, the piece surprises by retreating when we expect it to advance, as if changing evaluations based on perspective. The land is wide, and dangerous, and ominous, but also stark and lovely. One cannot make it through unscathed; if the body is intact, the heart has still been changed.
Haukur Tómasson “In Seventh Heaven” (also known online as “In the Seventh Heaven” is a seven minute (of course!) palate cleanser in the center of the set, playful and inviting, a welcome contrast to the preceding pieces as it lightens the mood while preserving the orchestral intricacy and sense of largesse. While listening, one is tempted to throw open the doors, take a few steps into the snow, and dance. The title is perfectly chosen; as the piece progresses and the players grow more intense, one gains a feeling of striving, especially with the arrival of staccato strings: ladders to bliss. The dramatic turns underline Tómasson’s opera roots; he can accomplish much within a short frame.
The album’s second lengthy piece is Þuríður Jónsdóttir‘s 21-minute “Flutter,” featuring Mario Caroli on flute. The orchestra holds back, as if in awe of the soloist. Like Tómasson, Jónsdóttir can be playful, as evidenced by her work with Björk and her pendant for audience participation. A cinematic, cartoonish mid-piece segment features woodblocks like sneaking feet and yowls like hungry cats in pursuit of their feathered prey. In the closing third, we hear crickets and (once again) whistling, albeit brief. Is the bird taunting its pursuer? A final, surging chord indicates freedom; no creature has died today.
But how to end? How to complete not only this set, but the trilogy? The honor of the concluding piece goes to Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, whose “Adagio” offers the perfect coda. We’ve already heard loud and dramatic; we’ve heard foreboding and cinematic; we’ve heard teasing and playful. Now it’s time for elegant reflection. Adding to the weight of this lovely work is the back story; this was the first piece the artist wrote after the death of his wife, a struggle with alcoholism and an eight-year silence. Now deceased, Jóhannsson continues to speak through his music. “Adagio” becomes an elegy not only for a loved one, but for the composer himself, a statement on loss, recovery and the ability to endure. Early in the set, we were entertained; now we are moved.
Congratulations to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Bjarnason and Sono Luminus for this astonishing trilogy, a labor of love whose influence will echo through the years. (Richard Allen)