This week sees new ITV drama Broadchurch coming to our screens, a series whose eerily beautiful soundtrack, scored by Icelandic composer-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds, is already grabbing attention in its own right. What better time, then, for Arnalds to bring us the first live performance of his latest album ‘For Now I Am Winter’? The sold-out show at the Barbican was a landmark event for the musician, consolidating his new creative ventures into orchestral, and vocal, territory. Accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia under the experienced direction of André de Ridder, and with vocals from fellow Icelandic singer Arnór Dan Arnarson, Arnalds put on a show that was more expansive and more dynamic than anything he had previously attempted.
Collaboration with a full live orchestra was a brave endeavour in itself for a musician familiar purely with the textural possibilities of the string quartet. But with the additional challenge of juggling a vocalist, glitchy beats from a drum programme, and other ambient electronic effects, the whole enterprise was no mean feat. And yet it worked marvellously, proving that Arnalds stands up in comparison to his fellow so-called "post-classicists", including Max Richter with whom he is often inevitably compared. In fact, this concert was the ultimate revelation of the meaning of "post-classicism", combining the textures of classical orchestra (the arrangements were completed by Nico Muhly) with neo-classical motifs, pop harmonies, ambient effects, and the propellant energy of electronica.
Monday’s album showcase was preceded by a half-hour set from emerging English composer Greg Haines, whose dexterous piano playing, in the vein of Ludovico Einaudi, offered a taste of the Philip Glass-inspired American minimalism at the heart of Arnalds's musical creation.
Once Arnalds had settled himself at the piano - a slight figure dwarfed by the orchestral ranks behind him - he invited the audience to sing the first note (an F) of the album opener ‘Sudden Throw’. The participatory gesture acted as a precedent for the fully immersive experience to come. Despite the rich orchestral sound, and intermittent quaking drum beats, there was an intimacy to the performance, contrived by the ever-present soft touch of Arnalds’s melodic fragments at the piano, anchoring each song. His sensitivity to the instrument’s sonority was clearly a testament to his admiration for fellow-composer (and good friend) Nils Frahm, with whom he has collaborated previously.
‘Sudden Throw’ introduced prominently a plaintive sighing motif in the violins, which was to reappear in altered guises in subsequent songs, acting as a unifying fragment to give the impression of one great soundscape. The album’s title track followed, introducing for the first time the fragile voice of Arnór Dan, whose soulful singing put one in mind of James Blake. The song was taken at a slightly faster tempo than on the album itself, which to some extent jeopardised its contemplative serenity, and prevented full indulgence in the harmonic layering. One of most successful live vocal pieces was ‘A Stutter’, which grew organically from a three-note piano fragment; drawn-out string chords melted exquisitely well into Anor’s wistful melody. The intensity of Arnór’s singing in the adventurous ‘Reclaim’ was matched by the majesty of the answering brass solo. Despite the balance being a little uneven at times, and the occasional loss of melodic direction, the vocals were without doubt an enriching, but never overpowering, addition.
The tranquillity was lifted at times by angular string polyphony. ‘Brim’, which came towards the end of the set, was marked by off-beat rhythms, repeated woodwind motifs and jostling contrapuntal orchestral lines, seemingly drawing influence from the ostinati characterising Steve Reich’s minimalist works. It joined ‘This Place Was A Shelter’ as a brilliant example of Arnalds’s fearless experimentations with the confrontation of incongruent musical genres. These works were testaments also to the Sinfonia’s tight ensemble, and to the musical exactitude of its conductor, whose guiding hand was indispensable at such moments of rhythmical complexity.
Arnalds rounded off the set with a look back to his 2011 release ‘Living Room Songs’. “You guys are getting me so emo,” he joked to the audience - in response to vigorous applause - before offering one final work as an encore: ‘Lag Fyrir Ömmu’ (‘Song For Grandma)’. He introduced this tender piece for piano and string quartet with a touching dedication to his parents sitting in the audience, which visibly moved him as much as it did his audience (some of whom admitted afterwards to shedding a few tears). The resulting standing ovation was well deserved for this ambitious young musician, who is a product of the flourishing Nordic music scene now becoming appreciated on these shores.
Words by Rachel Coombes
Photos by Anna Kroeger