It’s no surprise that a country with such extraordinary natural geography as Iceland should inspire its composers to create pieces based on its scenery. And it’s maybe no surprise either that it was in performances of several such pieces that the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, enjoying its debut Prom last Friday with their conductor Ilan Volkov, best demonstrated their abilities. The other, rather familiar items on the bill – Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Fifth – were disappointing, but two Icelandic encores ensured that there was enough about this Prom to make for a distinctive, enjoyable debut.

Volkov conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra © Alistair Muir
Volkov conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra
© Alistair Muir
Haukur Tómasson’s Magma (1998, rev. 1999, UK première) was a distinctive, slow-burning opener, whose fifteen minutes were split into three sections and then carefully subdivided again into mini-sections of around one minute apiece. What resulted was a composition that never lost a sense of momentum despite a fairly sedate pace, thanks to its constant shifting in mood and texture and its dynamic use of percussion, which gradually shifted focus from wooden instruments to metallic ones. As an evocation of the scolding liquid its title references, it was an understated success – though not as explosive as the other Icelandic work on the bill, Jón Leifs’ Geysir.

Leifs (1899–1968) is considered the father of Icelandic classical composition in the modern age, having studied composition and conducting in Europe, and even conducting the first ever orchestral concerts in Iceland in 1926. His work has, unsurprisingly, been extensively recorded by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and demonstrates an engagement with European trends even while resisting the extremities of some of his contemporaries’ work. There is a hint of Stravinskian Neoclassicism in his music, and (maybe inevitably) there’s something of Sibelius in the way he treats his homeland through music. Geysir is only ten minutes long but drawn on an epic scale, tracing the eruption of a geyser and the eerie calm of its aftermath with a compositional voice – very like Sibelius – all the more powerful for its coolness. Offstage timpani, arranged either side of the stage create a thick, scary texture, zealously captured by Volkov and the orchestra.

Volkov may not be Icelandic himself, but it was in these two performances that he seemed most at home. Neither the Beethoven nor the Schumann, with soloist Jonathan Biss, really took off, with a lack of momentum hampering the symphony and Biss rarely gelling convincingly with the orchestra in the Schumann. Even the opening of Schumann’s famous concerto seemed miscommunicated, with the ensemble and soloist taking a good few minutes to connect with each other. While some attractive moments stuck out – a delightful clarinet solo in the first movement; a superbly played transition into the finale – the concerto performance lacked the sense of careful pacing that so marked the two Icelandic pieces on the bill. Biss was a capable soloist who played with crystal clarity, but in a concerto that should unfold like a graceful dream, there were too many jolts between his playing and the orchestra’s. Biss’ daringly slow and pensive Der Dichter spricht (the final number in Schumann’s Kinderszenen) cast a better light on his imaginative, spontaneous style.

Beethoven’s Fifth fared similarly to the Schumann: the opening lacked conciseness and failed to build to satisfactorily grand climaxes; later on, there was little of the heroic spirit so crucial to the finale in this rather brisk, jolly rendering. Some attractive playing, especially from the strings, redeemed sections of this, but Volkov’s interpretation here seemed to have too little to say.

© Alistair Muir
© Alistair Muir
Thankfully, however, two Icelandic encores saved the day for this vivacious and talented orchestra: firstly, Leifs’ beautiful, melancholic Consolation for string orchestra showed a completely new side to both composer and ensemble, and secondly, Sigvaldi Kaldalóns’ (1881–1946) delightfully silly Á Sprengisandi, a two-minute orchestral showpiece arrangement of an Icelandic folk song complete with neighing trumpets, brought the house down.

This Prom was entitled “Classical Tectonics”, but it had little to do with Volkov’s Tectonics festival, a yearly event which celebrates the boldest, most experimental end of the contemporary orchestral repertoire. It was in the newest pieces, however, that this concert was most successful, and I left wishing for a touch more daring in the programming, suspecting that this might have played better to this orchestra and conductor’s strengths. Still, this was an assured Proms debut from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and an excellent introduction to some of their country’s classical music. Here’s hoping for more in coming years.