Published May 11, 2012
Composer Sigurður Sævarsson’s new album out, ‘Missa Pacis,’ blossoms with harmonies for choir, organ, cello, and percussion. I heard ‘Missa Pacis’ in concert with the Hljómeyki choir during the ‘Dark Music Days’ festival earlier this year; the piece was performed at Neskirkja church 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,’ or ‘Mass of Peace,’ is composed of minimalist gestures and haunting melodies, changing and growing from one movement to the next. ‘Kyrie’ begins the work, and is one of the most striking pieces on the album, a Requiem-like death march. The ending of the joyful ‘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, using only 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 or some virtuosic playing for the organist. But being a work primarily for the choir, the instruments often provide splashes of colour that wake up a sombre chorus.
The highlight is the 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 larger 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.
Missa Pacis is performed by Hljómeyki chamber choir, Sigurður Halldórsson, cello, Steingrímur Þórhallsson, organ, and Frank Aarnink, percussion, conducted by Magnús Ragnarsson.