This new album features the Siggi String Quartet and carries the self-explanatory title ‘South of the Circle’. It introduces recent quartets by a quintet of native composers. The three males represented are arguably better-known quantities outside of their own country than their two female counterparts, one of whom (Una Sveinbjarnardóttir) appears to double up as the first violin of the group.
Her contribution here is the impressive four-movement work Opacity, whose individual panels are unusually structured around long solos for each of the instrumentalists. In this piece the composer sought to challenge the received wisdom that solo material in quartets should be brief, thus in the opening piece More, the second violin dominates a fast-slow arrangement that hints at minimalism , whereas the cello solo in the following Opacity is more intense, and supported by harmonic content which tends towards neo-romanticism until an eerie passage featuring glissandi and harmonics instigates a gradual demise.
Elegia is led by a grainy, morose viola accompanied by unsettling, veiled voices articulated by the other instruments in the background. After its skeletal, spare opening the concluding movement Less involves the first violin partly improvising and triggering fragmented responses from the remaining instruments; in the music that emerges silence plays a primary role. These four study-like pieces cohere surprisingly well given the very distinctive atmospheres they each project.
Mamiko Dís Ragnarsdóttir is an academy-trained pianist as well as having something of a pop/jazz background and I was especially impressed by her single-movement piece Fair Flowers. She has anchored this piece upon a detailed analysis of the color structures of a nature painting, 'Untitled' by the Reykjavik-based artist Eggert Pétursson. This is a haunting, subtle composition, which moves languidly through a delicate pastel landscape with novel, unexpected harmonic and timbral shifts. It builds to an intense crescendo before slowly fading from focus. I would argue that of all the composers represented here, Ms. Ragnarsdóttir’s writing for the quartet is the most individual and original; her attractive and unostentatious music had little problem enticing this listener into her distinctive sound world.
Separating these two pieces is Valgeir Sigurðsson’s topographically inspired four-movement work Nebraska, written for the Chiara String Quartet to help mark their residency at the university in that state. Sigurðsson is already well known as an eclectic producer and arranger and his atmospheric film music is widely admired. Nebraska was effectively his first ‘classical’ commission.
The opening of Flat Water vividly recalls John Adams’ Shaker Loops, while the third piece Erosion is an especially Glassy scherzo although elsewhere in Nebraska the composer’s main pre-occupations seem to be with texture or mood, and these four brief pieces ultimately rely on developing small slivers of material, and collectively succeed in portraying a bare, demanding landscape. The Sono Luminus production especially comes into its own in this piece, effortlessly differentiating and blending the shades of the Siggi Quartet’s individual instruments.
The album is bookended by a pair of single movement quartets by two of Iceland’s most renowned figures. Daniel Bjarnason’s international reputation seems to grow by the month. Stillshot was inspired in part by the nostalgia invoked by early photographic techniques. In his note Bjarnason describes it as a kind of chaconne with a recurring string progression; while some of the harmonic sequences seem tantalizingly familiar, I must admit any perception of a chaconne-type structure eluded me. There are some beguiling sounds here, but I felt Stillshot as a whole was rather too fragmented and at times Bjarnason’s melodic and harmonic sequencing seemed uncomfortably redolent of Thomas Ades. Having recently heard Bjarnason’s superb Violin Concerto I found Stillshot relatively underwhelming, despite the fervent advocacy of this excellent Icelandic group.
Haukur Tómasson’s Serimonia is more interesting; an extended pizzicato opening gives way to more mysterious music, its weirdness imaginatively emphasised by both repetition and contrast. The sonic design of Serimonia demands diamantine clarity in its production, and the Siggi Quartet convey each tiny detail with surgical precision. Again, no praise can be too high for the outstanding Sono Luminus sound which conveys the full gamut of Tómasson’s string sonorities with terrific definition and presence.
I can only re-iterate my astonishment at the seemingly bottomless pit of compositional talent in this tiny country, and once more place on record my admiration for the pragmatism and enterprise of an entire generation of musicians who seem completely unburdened by and indifferent to the idea of discrete musical genres and categories. There is much to enjoy on this album not least for connoisseurs of the string quartet form.
Classical Modern Music Review
The Siggi String Quartet play repertoire from as far back as the Renaissance but they love the early-to-later Moderns as much as anything and thrive in collaborations with living composers. In their South of the Circle (Sono Luminous 92232), they present some of the very newest of New Music from composers of northern climes.
One might call much of this music Post-Atonal, because most all of it has a pretty clearly defined tonality yet it does not at all sound as if it is looking back as much as it is finding a way of expressing our moment alive today. All of it requires a true sensitivity to sound color which the Siggi Quartet provides in full, poetically so.
The five composers are duly weighed in on the liner notes. Daniel Bjarnason is said to be on the very edge of the new. He won the 2017 Icelandic Music Award composition of the year for Brothers (which was a Sono Luminus release). His "Stillshot" (2015) begins the program. Una Sveinbjarnardottir is a founding member of the quartet and concertmaster of the Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra. She has worked with Boulez, Penderecki, and Rostropovich among others. Her "Opacity" (2014) graces the CD as the second composition heard.
Valgeir Sigurdsson loves to blur distinctions between the acoustic and the electronic and won Iceland's album of the year award in 2018 for his 4th album Dissonance. "Nebraska" (2011) gives us a worthy quartet example on the program here. Mamiko Dis Ragnarsdottir is a Classical pianist and comes to the music with some rootedness in Jazz and Pop. She shows us an original sort of Minimalism with an introspective side on the included work "Fair Flowers" (2018). Finally, there is Haukur Tomasson, who won the prestigious Nordic Concert Music Prize in 2004 for his opera Gudrun's 4th Song. His "Serimonia" (2014) ends the program on an adventurous and harmonically edgy note.
The Siggi String Quartet excels on this album in the meticulous way they realize each work with close attention to sonority and space. Their excellence of detail within broadly sweeping readings make for us music that nearly startles after one takes the time to immerse oneself in the music. Extended techniques and subtle sound blends make a world you find the earful self entering more and more thoroughly with each listens. Like the best of New Music performances, it enters a sort of ineffable place where the sounds speak in ways words cannot.
I defer to this music with deep respect and appreciation. Highly recommended.
The Whole Note
While it should come as no surprise that contemporary Icelandic music should have – like music elsewhere across the globe – come of age, the sheer scope and breadth of its soundscape is, nevertheless, quite breathtaking. Riding the crest of a new wave created by Björk, Atli Heimir Sveinsson and Jóhann Jóhannsson is the dazzling Siggi String quartet founded by violinist and composer Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, whose work Opacity forms one of the five pillars of the quartet’s 2019 recording South of the Circle.
This follow-up to Philip Glass: Piano Works, the 2017 recording that the quartet shared with celebrated pianist and countryman Vikingur Ólafsson, is both sparkling and deeply reflective. The quartet’s interpretation of Sveinbjarnardóttir’s composition and those of three other Icelanders is marked by the poignancy of their playing. The music becomes part of a natural landscape that mixes beauty and danger. Whether evocative of freezing nights or long rainy days, each track takes us to a place – often wildly exhilarating – with trusted and inspiring musical friends.
Such warmth comes at no expense to either classical elegance or avant-garde subversion.
Throughout the quartet creates a compelling sound-bed for four voices of contrasting character. Although best expressed in the long inventions of the solos contained in Opacity, the virtuoso playing of the quartet is also expressed in their sculpting of the music of Daníel Bjarnason’s Stillshot, Valgeir Siguròsson’s Nebraska, Mamikó Dis Ragnarsdóttir’s Fair Flowers and Haukur Tómasson’s Serimonia.
A Closer Listen
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. Shouldn'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 an 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.
The contents of this release by Iceland's Siggi String Quartet include, as the title suggests, Icelandic music. The five-string quartets involved, slow-moving and spacious, fit with a good deal of recent music from Scandinavian countries in being evocative of natural landscapes. However, they also manage to do this while, for the most part, embodying some kind of abstract organizational principle.
Something of a centerpiece is Valgeir Sigurðsson's Nebraska, written for a string quartet in residence in that state, which was inspired by imagined geological and physical correspondences between Iceland and Nebraska. Una Sveinbjarnardóttir's Opacity (it is a bit difficult to determine exactly what is "opaque" about it) is perhaps unique in the entire history of string quartet music: it devotes each of its four movements to one of the four instruments of the string quartet.
Sample Mamiko Dís Ragnarsdóttir's Fair Flowers for an idea of the dual aesthetic of this music: the work is organized according to a strict system of synesthetic colors. Several of these composers have worked with Björk, as well as other pop composers whose work intersects with the classical world, and the album should be of considerable interest to fans of Icelandic music in general. Recommended.