orchestra, organ, choir and soloists
Critic of the premiere by Hilary Finch, London Times.
You might not know it, but St Cecilia has also visited Iceland. She chose the isolated region of Borgarfjordur (umlaut on the second 'o'): the little church of Husafell (acute accent on the 'u'), in the shadow of two great glaciers, is dedicated to her memory. An artist and sculptor who lives there still claims to see her visage within the striations of the volcanic rock. And to celebrate her memory (and doubtless to ask a much needed blessing on the troubled isle), a new oratorio, *Cecilia*, was given its world premiere in Reykjavik on the saint's feast-day.
The composer, Askell Masson, (acute accent on the 'a' of surname) is enfant terrible turned eminence grise. He made his name as an avant-garde composer and percussionist; but the *Cecilia* oratorio is almost reverentially conservative in musical terms -- on the face of it, at least. For under its tonal surface lies a cunning use of numerology ("earthly" numbers like two and four confront "holy" numbers such as one, three and seven). And Masson's conjuring of these melodic and harmonic relationships in a brew also highly flavoured by ancient Icelandic modes and chants is potent indeed. With a dark, highly-charged orchestral palette, Masson has created a sustained contemplative drama of cumulative tension.
Although a slow pulsing permeates the entire hour-long narrative, both solo and choral lines are enlivened by the changing metres of the verse of the octogenarian Icelandic writer, Thor Vilhjalmsson (acute accent on the 'a'). It's a strong, dense libretto: words toll and chime with the sound of the church's two organs and a variety of bells, all within a large percussion section. And there are strange and magical resonances, too, from the sacred stones of Husafell itself. Pall (acute accent on the 'a') Gundmundsson, who has made stone marimbas for the likes of Evelyn Glennie and Sigur Ros, created one specially for this performance, together with two huge water bowls of carved volcanic rock. The splashing of water and the singing of the stones is sparingly used: to conjure the presence of the Holy Spirit, to focus the path to martyrdom, to mourn Cecilia, with the voice of bass flute.
Repetition and transformation of motifs, and minimalist patternings give unity and stamina to a finely-spun score played and sung with eloquent commitment by the Chamber Orchestra and Motet Choir of Hallgrimskirkja, conducted by Hordur (umlaut on the 'o') Askelsson. The role of Cecilia herself was clearly written with the lyrical and stratospheric soprano of Thora Einarsdottir (umlauts on both 'o's) in mind. She and the tenor Bjorn(umlaut on the 'o) Jonsson (acute on the first 'o') (Valerianus) both studied at London's Guildhall School, and now have international careers. As does the baritone Agust Olafsson (Tiburcius) and the compelling basso profundo, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson (Count Almachius). As the choir led the audience back from Husafell to Rome, the apotheosis of Cecilia was robustly hymned by choir and soloists, with a luminous top D from Einarsdottir, and a mighty final roar of the saint's iconic organ.