The Iceland Symphony Orchestra only made its BBC Proms debut back in 2014 – partly a sign of how seriously the orchestra is now taken – but with a strong recording presence and good relationships with international artists, its reputation continues to develop.The impact of the financial crisis a decade ago had severely hindered the orchestra’s ability to tour, but it is slowly starting to build a European presence. I caught the ISO’s most recent foreign excursion to Gothenburg in Sweden where it performed an interesting programme at the Göteborgs Konserthus, under chief conductor, Yan Pascal Tortelier.
The concert opened with Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Aeriality, a work which the orchestra recorded several years ago, and for which they have an obvious affinity. It’s a striking piece of music, with a distinct and original style. The soundscape feels organic, to me almost serpentine in the sinuous way the music seems to coil and progress. The percussion is sinister, the woodwind wild. Dense textures are piled and stacked against each other, and the music is at its most jarring when sudden strands of lush, almost Straussian music seep through, the warm radiance of the strings a delightful textual contrast to earlier chilliness. Thorvaldsdóttir’s deployment of percussion that is often conversational against the low rumble of the strings is deftly done. The final dying strains, played with exacting precision, were perfectly audible at the Göteborgs Konserthus, but would likely have been lost to London audiences in many of its concert halls. It was a compelling performance from the ISO, played with conviction, the percussion in particular approaching the multi-faceted writing with aplomb.
Richard Strauss’ tone poems, though works of undoubted brilliance, have become a little too regularly programmed recently and it was good to see something a little different of his at this concert. Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson joined the orchestra to perform the Burleske in D minor, one of Strauss’ earlier works, written when the composer was just 21 and still developing his own individual voice. The piece is an intriguing demonstration of the influence of his predecessors combined with hints of what was to come. Despite the negative attitude of its dedicatee, Hans von Bülow, and Strauss’ own lifelong doubts about the piece which only seemed to abate in his final years, the work is an excellent example of the composer’s ability to balance complex orchestral writing with individual virtuosity. A rapt introduction on the timpani from Eggert Pálsson offered a promising opening, and though the brass seemed less precise than ideal initially, there was an appealing fullness to the sound. Ólafsson’s style was refreshingly undemonstrative, playing with clear and gleaming tones. Tight precision was matched with restrained intensity, and there was obvious virtuosity in the unerring accuracy of his playing as the pace increased, without every giving an impression of rushing it, while smaller shifts in dynamic were carefully examined. Yan Pascal Tortelier brought elegant phrasing from the woodwinds and a bold sweep to the strings and there was some fine playing from the cellos. Indeed, a hallmark of the ISO, from this piece and the next, appears to be a particular tonal richness on the strings that sears in tutti sections and lingers in the ear, an immediately attractive sound.
For some years, the ISO has had a good reputation for its Sibelius; here they performed his Symphony no. 2 in D major. The strings throbbed for the opening of the Allegretto and expanded into thick velvety textures. The brass was on strong form, more precise than previously and with a real perkiness in the horns, while lugubrious bassoons and clear oboes stood out in the woodwind. Keen pizzicato, again benefiting from the hall’s strong acoustic, in the Andante flickered evocatively against the bassoon theme. Tortelier’s tempi were expansive, allowing for a poetic unfolding, but he showed a willingness to jerk the orchestra forward for dramatic effect. Fleet string playing opened the third movement before a fine limpid oboe solo introduced the Trio. The Finale bursts out of the preceding movement and here the string playing reached new heights, the luxurious timbre relentless. A little more impulse would have been welcome at one or two points here, but the quality of playing was beyond reproach. An enthusiastic audience dragged a spirited encore of “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, a fitting end to an interesting and enjoyable performance.
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