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The Sounding Board by R J Lannan
RJ Lannan is the reviewer for The Sounding Board.
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By Jóhann Jóhannsson
Label: Deutsche Grammophon-Universal Music Group
Released 9/16/2016
Orphée tracks
1. Flight from the City
2. A Song for Europa
3. The Drowned World
4. A Deal with Chaos
5. A Pile of Dust
6. A Sparrow Alighted upon Our Shoulder
7. Fragment I
8. By the Roes, and by the Hinds of the Field
9. The Radiant City
10. Fragment II
11. The Burning Mountain
12. De Luce et Umbra
13. Good Morning, Midnight
14. Good Night, Day
15. Orphic Hymn
Jóhann Jóhannsson - Orphée
As I listened to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s contemporary version of Orphée, an ambitiously brilliant work that details the life and death cycle in musical terms, it reminded me of a line by Wallace Stevens. Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.” Jóhannsson’s tour de force is a singular interpretation of many of the stories that entail the mythology of Orpheus. In this fifteen track recording, he uses neo-symphonic and atmospheric sensibilities to create an otherworldly foray into the ancient realms of musicians, poets and heroes. His generous use of a pipe organ adds a moody depth to the mix that makes them sound more like laments than dirges. Additionally Jóhann utilizes piano, cello, a string orchestra and a human chorus. He also sparingly incorporates modern elements such as radio broadcasts and electronic punctuation to balance out his contemporary compositions.

Flight from the City introduces the first tinges of melancholy that are evident throughout the work. I could feel the warmth of the day being overcome by the cold of the approaching night. The stars above were like icy gems. The destination was unknown, but it was a fresh start in the making.

On the tune A Deal with Chaos, the voice of the cello mourns the loss of Eurydice as the story unfolds. Jóhannsson integrates a modern numeric cadence in the background, a countdown if you will. The die is cast and a decent is eminent. A Pile of Dust rises like a phoenix, always heaven bound. It is ascending, yet vaguely promising. It is one of the few lighter piece in the work, but still it cannot counter the dismal future of our hero.

Fragment I and Fragment II are pipe organ dreams. They are interludes, perhaps a place to rest and gather the strength needed to continue the journey. I could not help but be reminded of some of the works of contemporary composer Olivier Messiaen as the musical turmoil ensued.

Calling upon the magical properties of the red deer in mythology, By the Roes, and By the Hinds of the Fields is another light piece, more dynamic than pastoral. The piano lead is quite memorable, evoking a time when music was a welcomed friend in the forests, where beasts held no fear and the balance of man and nature prevailed. De Luce et Umbra is like going down a set of stairs. It has a confident string intro, but it falters as the hero descends into the darkness. Its musical sense is descriptively true, like a person going from light into shadow, or from hope into despair.

Good Morning, Midnight which segues seamlessly into Good Night, Day are the confluences of the journey, but not necessarily the end. Both pieces have a touch of the cinematic in them, something for which Jóhannsson is well noted, but they both hold their own as balanced motifs.

Finally, how could you not weep as the chorus sings the Orphic Hymn? Sung by Theatre of Voices, it is a heart wrenching canto that soars up to the heavens like a celestial vesper, a culmination of every emotional nuance that Jóhannsson offers.

Jóhann Jóhannsson is an Academy Award nominated and award winning composer born in Iceland. He is renowned for his music contributions to theater, film, television and dance. His first solo album, Englabörn appeared in 2002, but he has produced quite a repertoire of albums, soundtracks and countless collaboration throughout his career. Orphée is his first release on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

About the album art…..I could never look away from the album cover once it caught my eye. It is a black circle with soft edges on a white background. It reminded me of Orpheus’ entry into the bowels of hell and it was very distracting. I liked it very much.
Rating: Excellent   Excellent
- reviewed by RJ Lannan on 12/14/2016
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