Eva Ollikainen, chief conductor and music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, made a fine Proms debut leading the BBC Philharmonic. In equally top form, the orchestra and conductor managed a programme that balanced the new and the familiar.

Eva Ollikainen
© Chris Christodoulou

Following the UK premiere of Metacosmos at the Proms in 2019, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir returned with a world premiere of a BBC co-commission, ANCHORA. From the former highly impressive Proms debut, one saw some similar trademarks in tonight’s equally striking work – bowing of gongs, scraping of drums, sliding strings obscuring occasional hints of more harmonic language and short snippets of soulful melodic lines. The new work draws on the combination of a primordial, fundamental energy ("arché") and the idea of an elusive parallel realm ("chora"). The primordial is characterised by low rumbling bass, brass and occasional organ, and dominating unison pedal notes and fifths. Strings and woodwind slide around, sometimes stepwise, sometimes with slow, seasick glissandi – the shifting of the parallel realm? A mournful melody eventually emerges, and the scraping of drumstick against the bass drum sounds like animal cries from another world. Ollikainen steered the BBC Philharmonic players through this dark landscape with a clear and expansive beat. Thorvaldsdottir uses the orchestra to create remarkably haunting atmospheres and textures – adding choral forces to her orchestral palate would also be interesting to hear.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Eva Ollikainen
© Chris Chistodoulou

Austrian cellist Kian Soltani’s Elgar was strong, with command of the virtuosic demands a given and expressively singing tone in the slower moments. His was a more intimate and introspective reading than some – a welcome change from frequent overplayed performances – and this was matched well on the whole by Ollikainen’s restraint of orchestral dynamics. Only in the gently bouncing Allegro moderato of the second movement did the orchestral weight occasionally obscure Soltani’s lightness of touch. The tuttis in the finale were ever more expansive, but here Ollikainen succeeded in bringing each one back to allow for Soltani’s attention to detail to shine through. 

Soltani returned to the stage for a touching encore – his own arrangement of the Ukrainian folksong Lovely Minka, I must away. Soltani performed a solo version in Vienna in March, in support of a campaign to send medical supplies to Ukraine. Tonight’s arrangement began with soulful rising arpeggios from Soltani, with the lower strings joining, pulsing gently beneath. His melody was then answered by a high solo from the orchestra’s Ukrainian leader, Yuri Torchinsky, and ended movingly with Soltani accompanied by gentle pizzicato from lead cellist Maria Zachariadou.

Kian Soltani
© Chris Christodoulou

Ollikainen's performance of Sibelius' Symphony no. 2 in D major shared some elements of approach with the Elgar – nothing was overplayed or forced, and there was thoughtful attention to detail throughout. Weight was given to pauses in the second movement, and the complicated series of orchestral gestures and breaks at the end of that movement was deftly handled. The ensemble was tight in the precise, if ever so slightly under tempo Scherzo, as were the twos against threes, particularly from the bassoons, at the start of the second movement, despite limited subdivisions of the slow beat from Ollikainen. Here, however, Ollikainen brought the walking bass line in and out of view with exemplary control. And as for the "big tune" in the finale, the payoff from not overplaying her cards was a slow build to a strong finish, the slow final swell particularly effective. There were moments where Ollikainen drove proceedings with greater energy, such as the immediate pulsing energy of the opening, and encouraging intensity of response from the violins in the build to the big tune – more of this freer energy would add a further dimension to her commanding and thoughtful approach.