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Contemporary Classics: Reykjavík Midsummer Music Reviewed

Click here to read on The Reykjavík Grapevine.

You could be forgiven for thinking that a piece entitled ‘Homage to Robert Schumann’ might sound like music by Schumann. I’m guessing that most of the audience who attended the Reykjavík Midsummer Music Festival on June 21st might have thought the same. Reader, how wrong they were. György Kurtág’s haunting composition may reference Schumann in the title, and is often performed interspersed with works by Schumann, but the similarities largely end there. In the pale green glow of the Norðurljós hall at the Harpa, the audience was treated to a set of six discordant movements, where piano, clarinet, and viola flutter up and down chromatic scales and clash in stark crescendos. It was another reminder that the annual Reykjavík Midsummer Music Festival never fails to surprise.

Blurring the boundaries

While Reykjavík Midsummer Music, which ran for the seventh time this year from June 20th to 23rd, is technically a festival of chamber music, you can quickly dispense with any notions of old-fashioned stuffiness. For starters, it’s directed by Víkingur Ólafsson, the virtuoso Icelandic pianist whose striking, provocative, and technically brilliant recordings of Bach and Philip Glass has brought him international renown. Víkingur has often argued that any music is contemporary if played today, and this sentiment suffuses the programming of the festival, blurring the boundaries between classical and contemporary. And then there’s the venue, Reykjavík’s magnificent Harpa Concert Hall; its dazzling, award-winning architecture reminding you that this is, in every sense, a fiercely modern affair.

Yura Lee at Reykjavík Midsummer Music Festival

Technical brilliance

Admittedly, there was no shortage of ‘old’ music. Midsummer Music opened with Austrian baritone Florian Boesch giving a heart-rending performance of Brahms’ final song cycle, but it was in his performance of four Bach arias that he really came into his own, bringing a sense of drama and calm in equal measure. Another highlight was violinist Yura Lee, who was almost as busy as Víkingur and switched effortlessly between times and genres. Her stunningly technical playing in Bent Sørensen’s enigmatic ‘Papillons’—which means butterfly, though I wouldn’t want to meet the creature that inspired this chilling piece—deserves high praise, as does her unprogrammed fiddling in ‘Blue Grass,’ displaying her extraordinary versatility.

Masters of minimalism

Perhaps the most contemporary and abstract set was by Hans-Joachim Roedelius. Initially planned for Mengi, it proved so popular it was relocated to the Harpa where, late in the evening of the 22nd, the so-called ‘father of ambient music’ treated us to a beautiful, increasingly psychedelic soundscape, complemented by meticulously restrained piano from Roedelius and Víkingur. It was a profoundly meditative experience, and I wanted to throttle the group behind me who inexplicably whispered through most of the hour. Of course, no concert with Víkingur would be complete without a good dose of Phillip Glass, but it was actually the brilliant French piano due, the Labèque sisters, who closed the festival, first with Glass’ ‘The Poet Acts’ and then ‘Four Movements for Two Pianos’, bringing the festival to a close with a great cascade of keys and chords which roiled and plunged in a quintessentially Glass fashion and garnered a standing ovation from the audience.

Making you think

There were doubtless some challenging moments in the programme, and it seems fair to say that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. In Kurtág’s homage in particular, there was a fair bit of shifting in the audience, especially in the pointedly long pauses between the movements. It was, invariably, not a relaxing listen. But Midsummer Music has loftier goals than that. Such was the range of music that one would almost certainly have found something that struck them, and the technical and musical expertise on display was a privilege to behold. Ultimately, Reykjavík Midsummer Music was a towering success, not least because it did what all the best classical music does—it made you think.

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