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Our Writer Far-flung in Reykjavik


Kristján Jóhannesson

Remember this name: Kristján Jóhannesson. He is a young Icelandic baritone who surely has a great career ahead of him. I was in Reykjavik last week (looking for, and finding, a place warmer than Boston!). One of the places our tour guide took us was the magnificent Harpa Concert Hall, which contains five performance spaces for everything from chamber music to symphony concerts and opera in a building of extraordinary architectural beauty and practicability.

When the guide learned we were heavily involved in music, she told us that she was a devoted choral singer and that her son was an avant-garde composer. She regretted, however, that there were apparently no musical events taking place during our three days in the city. We were surprised to run into her at our hotel on our return from dinner that evening. She had come to leave a note telling us that there would indeed be a concert that might be of interest—a short one, lasting a half hour at 12:15pm on Tuesday, and free to the public. This is a weekly event at the Harpa, similar to the daily free programs at 6pm in the main hallway of the Kennedy Center in Washington. In both cases, the musical style can vary dramatically from one time to the next. But she told us that this was an up-and-coming Icelandic baritone who would be singing Schubert. That was enticing enough to shape our Tuesday sightseeing plans.

Our guide warned us to arrive early, because there was always a rush at the door. So we got to the concert hall an hour early and saw already a few dozen older people—pensioners, apparently, not unlike us—waiting in the broad corridor outside the chamber music hall. By 11:45 the crowd had grown much larger and some people started a line. We joined it at about the 50th position and within a few minutes it had grown to perhaps 300 or 400.

The door opened at noon, and everyone thronged in to take their seats, picking up programs on the way. And there was the first surprise. The only name on the list of pieces was Schubert, all right. But I was amazed to discover only a single song title and text. Though I have known it from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s early recording, which I bought in high school in the late 1950s, I never expected to hear anyone offer, in a live concert, Schubert’s setting of Schiller’s ballad Der Taucher [The Diver], a song he reworked several times which he made two versions (D. 77a and b, the latter formerly identified as D.111) in his mid-teens, in late 1813 or 1814, finishing the second version before the miraculous year of 1815, when he composed 150 songs—one-fourth of his total song output—at the age of 18.

Der Taucher is a long narrative ballad about a king who throws a jeweled goblet of gold into an ocean whirlpool (Schiller refers to it twice as “a Charybdis”) and declares that it will belong to anyone who can retrieve it. A handsome young man successfully completes the task, though with enormous difficulty. But this is not enough for the king. He wants a full report of the terrors the diver can recount from another descent. The king’s daughter pleads with him to stop this dangerous game, but the king grabs the goblet again and throws it back into the flood, declaring that if the youth can recover it again, he will be named the chief among the king’s knights and will receive the hand of the princess. She watches as he dives again, waiting with nervous passion. The waves roll in—but they do not bring the body of the young man.

Harpa Concert Hall

Schubert’s setting, at 20 minutes, one of his longest songs, requires the singer to be the king and the youth as well as to describe the stormy waters and his near-drowning experience on the first try. Jóhannessen met all of these requirements with a rich, clear voice and fine German enunciation as well as a strong sense of characterization. The audience offered a ringing endorsement of both singer and the fine young pianist Bjarni Frímann Bjarnasson with an extended standing ovation. They returned with a pair of very different Brahms songs as an encore. One of them, a setting of Heine’s Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht “Death is the cool night, and life the sultry day” calls for sustained lyric lines to the same degree that Der Taucher required heroic assertiveness. The other, to end this wonderful half-hour recital on a lyrically romantic note, was Botschaft [“Message”], an adaptation of Hafiz by Daumer.

If I deciphered the Icelandic text properly, Jóhannessen at just 25 years old, is already a fully-equipped recitalist. His ability to characterize the personages in the ballad suggests that he would be an excellent opera singer, too. I talked to him briefly after the event and learned that he sings mostly in Vienna, which seems entirely sensible. His voice, his congenial personality, his tall good looks, and his expressive range all point to a distinguished career in both song and opera. I am eager to hear him before long in the United States.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Bravo Steve for visiting Iceland, where my grand daughter lives, and where I have friends in the Symphony- a lot of their musicians study at Boston University- they come in pods! and their appreciation of all kinds of music is extraordinary- having performed there and also invited Helga Thorarinsdottir (prin viola) to play at Northeastern and on WGBH, I would urge anyone to visit this amazing country- Women are equal to men-you keep your father’s 1st name and attach Dottir to the end………due to the fishing accidents in olden times
    Reykavik is only 4 hrs from Boston and you won’t regret going there – incredible Art galleries, crafts made from their sheep, fish to die for, but the Music scene is tops- not for nothing they produced Bjork

    Comment by virginia eskin — January 15, 2018 at 8:43 am

  2. Harpa is indeed a fine hall, with outstanding acoustics (at least from sitting on the floor center). In February 2016, we caught an astonishing performance of Bruckner’s 5th conducted by Hannu Lintu. It was a cosmic performance of that masterpiece. The orchestra delivered a truly great performance that is by far the best I’ve ever heard live of that symphony, outplaying many orchestras of far greater renown. They were so far inside the music that it was music-making of nearly unimaginable dimensions. All of it was outstanding, and by the time the fourth movement arrived, I felt weightless and spinning toward the heavens. What’s even more astonishing is that the last time the orchestra had played the work was in the 1980s, which meant that probably everyone on stage was playing it for the first time. How they pulled that off is beyond my comprehension. And Harpa was the ideal place to hear the work, with beautiful resonance and a wonderful half-life of sound. Kudos have to be given to Maestro Lintu, who obviously brought a vision to the orchestra that was truly at the service of the music, to his excellent “conducting” of the hall (perfectly-timed pauses to let the sound resonate), and to the super-human execution of the orchestra. Had there been a second performance, we would have been there again the next night.

    Harpa is one of the better concert halls I’ve been to acoustically. And it’s also beautiful. Kudos to Iceland–you folks got it right!

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 17, 2018 at 7:39 am

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