Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sigurður Sævarsson: Missa Pacis

The Icelandic composer Sigurður Sævarsson has a new album out, and his ‘Missa Pacis’ blossoms with harmonies for choir, organ, cello, and percussion. I heard ‘Missa Pacis’ in concert with Hljómeyki choir during the ‘Dark Music Days’ music festival in early 2011; the piece was performed at Neskirkja (a church in Vesturbær) under dimly-lit altar lights, rows of candles, and a perfectly-hushed audience. Finally released as an album, the mystical mood of the live performance is faithfully recreated in recording. ‘Missa Pacis’ takes up where Sigurður’s last CD ‘Hallgrímspassia’ left off, with minimalist gestures and haunting melodies, changing and growing from one movement to the next. ‘Kyrie’ begins the work (it is a Mass, after all), and is one of the most striking pieces on the album, a Requiem-like death march. But it seems that this feeling is short-lived: the death-march fades into an overall serenity (hence 'Mass of Peace') that carries throughout the album. The ending of the ‘Hosanna’ movement sounds a little like Beethoven meets Stravinsky, executed as only an Icelander could do. The percussion often takes the place of a whole orchestra, with its large tympani and bells. If there were one thing that was lacking in ‘Missa Pacis’ it is that the instruments don’t get to show off their full potential; I wanted a solo movement for cello, some virtuosic playing for the organist. But being a work primarily for the choir, the instruments often provide splashes of color that wake up a somber chorus. The highlight of Sigurður’s CD is its strikingly beautiful sections of vocal writing, carrying the torch of the Icelandic choir tradition that goes back centuries. The Latin text throughout the work is always clearly heard and understood- very rare among works for a large ensemble. Sigurður invents moments for voices that that shine like bells, chiming in and then fading out to a near-inaudible whisper. Best of all, there are surprisingly hummable melodies, especially in the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Miserere’. I found myself singing sections of ‘Missa Pacis’ as I took a walk outside, realizing that it’s not too often that a Latin Mass gets stuck in my head on the way to 10-11.

(A portion of this review is/was slated to be published in Reykjavík Grapevine newspaper, though publishing date is still unknown. I wrote the review at the end of my Fulbright in July, and haven't seen it published yet, hence the availability here first. Should the article appear I'll of course link to that too.)

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