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Iceland's church music



Record Box

Akureyri Church. Photo copyright (c) Keith Bramich
Akureyrarkirkja, Iceland - the location for this recording


Icelandic music does not reach our ears often, or perhaps not at all. As with any country, or any people, traditions build a storehouse of almost anything, and become a resource for each generation to use as they wish, or neglect if they are indifferent to their inheritance.

This CD contains a modest selection of sacred solo songs and hymns within the Icelandic church tradition. At first you listen with slight puzzlement because the settings are so straightforward yet different in harmonic ambience, a mixture of diatonicism and modality within a somewhat boxy structure. Try this snippett from a folk melody remembered by an old man and more recently fashioned as a hymn. [listen]

This collection also contains modern tunes, sometimes to ancient texts. Atli Heimir Sveinsson wrote this tune in 1992: its flavour and the independent organ part are obviously attuned to this same tradition - (in English translation) A time to learn our Life is true [listen].

Gifts of the spirit - Icelandic church musicThe record has also several organ solo tracks which I would consider beyond the comfort zone of ordinary listeners: a rumbustious Toccata by Jon Nordal and an Ostinato et Fughetta by one of the best-known Icelandic organists of yesteryear, Pall Isolfsson. Its derivation is Germanic, in the steps of Reger, and thereby difficult to determine the differing ratios of invention and crafting skill [listen]. The excellent organist, Bjorn Steinar Solbergsson, demonstrates his ability throughout - in simple music and also the tough assignments just mentioned.

On reflection I would not expect any particular demand from other countries for the Icelandic style of simple church music, even though some tracks rise to a level of commitment whereby their message would be transmitted to a crowded church of any persuasion (if such a condition still exists apart from a society wedding). Whilst it would be insulting to suggest that congregational enthusiasm nowadays depends on happy-clappy, we in the UK are aware of the sharp divides between one congregational style and the next down the street.


Copyright © Basil Ramsey, December 22nd 1999 



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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews