Iceland seems just the right place to perform Thomas Adès’ piano concerto In Seven Days. It tells, in the most vivid of terms, the story of the creation of the earth as related in the Book of Genesis, and if there is one landscape that looks freshly forged, it has to be Iceland’s.

Thomas Adès, Víkingur Ólafsson and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra
© Hari

Great chunks of cooled lava from volcanoes ancient and modern lie everywhere across a vast tundra, which seems incapable of supporting one tree or a single animal. Majestic mountains lie in the distance, brooding under their snow; steam rises from geysers and lakes; imperceptible tremors shift the shale and pumice and warn that the earth is restless and unpredictable just below the surface. No wonder NASA sent lunar astronauts here to learn how to master their moon buggies. 

Adès himself came to Reykjavík to conduct the concerto at the request of the soloist, Iceland’s pianist of the moment, Víkingur Ólafsson, this season’s artist in residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Next year he will perform concertos by Daniel Bjarnason and John Adams, also with the composers conducting. It’s a measure of Ólafsson’s standing today that he can command such personal attention from three international figures.

In Seven Days was designated a “piano concerto with moving image” when written in 2008 but the video images, described as optional, were absent from the Iceland performance. Not that it mattered; the abundant imagery in the orchestration would fill 100 cinema screens. Strings evoke the heaving of the seas and the vastness of the sky; raindrops pour from the percussion; crazed flutes and piccolos twitter insanely as birds appear on the earth; double basses and brass grumble and growl as great creatures begin to find their feet; the sun and moon blind us with their light; majestic forests spring up and sway to and fro in the restless wind. 

All this gloriously structured mayhem is greeted with brilliant waterfalls of notes from the piano. They pour up and down the keyboard, only briefly coinciding with sections of the orchestra to produce jewel-like chords that punctuate the narrative. Ólafsson was in his element, listening intently to his compatriots, climbing carefully down a descending rock face of beautiful, questing chords before scampering to the finish with a flourish.

This should really be called a concerto for piano and orchestra, such is the virtuosic complexity of the writing for all sections. It’s a huge challenge for any ensemble (it was a co-commission for the London Sinfonietta and San Francisco Symphony) and the Icelanders, for the most part, met that challenge impressively, discounting an occasional ragged entry and a few brief moments of uncertain intonation high up in the strings.

They had been on safer ground in Adès’s Dawn, an evocation of an event that occurs here, at this time of year, after 10am (the sun sets around 4pm). Slow arpeggios from zither, harp and piano sit beneath a layer of slowly awakening strings, before a simple descending phrase emerges and gathers strength as is it shared across the orchestra. Brass, horns and woodwind, placed high up in galleries above the stage, added yet more aural majesty as the theme grew in intensity towards its fiery conclusion. They call the main auditorium at the Harpa the Hall of Fire, in homage to Iceland’s volatile volcanic existence. Never had its flame-red decoration seemed so appropriate.

Adès had opened the evening with some very sweetly played Sibelius: his Rakastava (The Lover) based on a choral work from 1894 revised for strings in 1911, and The Tempest Suite no. 2. The strings really excelled here, showing an exceptional ability to play with sustained pianissimo, tightly controlled by Adès, but never losing sight of the intensely lyrical, lilting nature of the writing. Iceland, population 366,000, is lucky indeed to have such a fine orchestra at the heart of its cultural life. 

Stephen's press trip to Iceland was funded by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra