Published October 4, 2015
Composer/violinist Una Sveinbjarnardóttir’s new album of violin solos is titled ‘Umleikis’, or “playing around.” Una is best known for her role in the Icelandic Symphony, performing and recording for countless national and international pieces. Originally intending to make an album of old and new solo violin works written by various composers, Una cut her finger before the ‘Umleikis’ recording sessions commenced, and the plan changed drastically. The resulting album is a much more intimate venture, a collection of personal compositions and improvisations, recorded in 2012 at the Ísafjörður church.
The album’s three best tracks, “More,” “Links,” and “Bræla,” originated as warm-up studies for the violin, prep for strenuous concerts and limbering up for the fingers. Paganini would be proud of this fiery display of sixteenth-note runs, double-stops (playing two strings at once), and sparkling high-range jumps. Other exceptional moments glitter like stars within more somber passages: the harmonics jumping over the strings in “Kater,” and the siren song in “Requiem For Ghengis,” the concluding track.
Other pieces on the album fall prey to the most difficult aspect of writing music for a solo instrument: the lack of a counterpoint, something to set against the main melodic line. Even some pizzicato (plucked notes) or percussive bowing effects would liven the texture. There is also nary a major-scale work to give a glimpse of cheer, or even a change of tonality to more modal or exotic passages for contrast.
‘Umleikis’ reads more as a collection of somber and understated works than the impressive centerpieces it contains. Nevertheless, Una’s innate sense of string phrasing and a focus on the tonal qualities within the ranges of her instrument give the album a dark edginess, not unlike the solitary journey on the roads of the Westfjörds.