It wasn’t just Storm Ciara that blew in from the west at the weekend. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra blasted in from Reykjavík to undertake its first UK tour, a welcome visitor after making a vivid impact in its BBC Proms debut in 2014. Unlike Ciara, the London leg didn’t quite leave a trail of devastation and destruction in its wake, although the brass climaxes in The Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet must have tested the foundations of Cadogan Hall. The ISO demonstrated plenty of muscle in a wide-ranging programme under former chief conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

That muscle was applied quite heavily to the French repertoire in the first half, surprisingly so given there was a French conductor at the helm. It gave the excerpts from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlesienne an earthy quality – not completely inappropriate – but the Carillon tolled heavily and the Minuet lacked buoyancy. The muted strings glowed in the Adagietto from the first suite, though, and the Farandole was suitably rustic, one double bass player sawing away with particular enthusiasm.

Yeol Eum Son © Benjamin Ealovega
Yeol Eum Son
© Benjamin Ealovega

There were times when the orchestra threatened to crush the delicacy of Yeol Eum Son’s playing in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, but the Korean pianist bit back with some astonishing playing. The mighty opening cadenza roiled around in the Steinway’s depths and her articulation in the jazzier sections was crisp. Bluesy muted trombone ushered the orchestra into Ravel’s hypnotic, Boléro-like groove, Tortelier leading them with boisterous swagger. Yeol Eum Son entranced in the concerto’s more intimate moments, as she did in her beautifully poised Scriabin encore – also for left hand alone.

It was great to have some Icelandic repertoire on the bill… and to have Anna Thorvaldsdottir present to acknowledge the enthusiastic response to her 2011 work, Aeriality. The composer has described it as “the state of gliding through the air with nothing or little to hold on to – as if flying”. There’s a primal, brooding quality to the music which almost seems to holds its breath, waiting for an eruption. Cluster harmonies and a host of percussion effects – bowed cymbals, bass drum “massaged” with brushes – gripped the attention in this enthralling performance.

Mandolin players © Benjamin Ealovega
Mandolin players
© Benjamin Ealovega

There was more gripping playing – in a bolder fashion – in the Prokofiev, a suite compiled by Tortelier which told Shakespeare’s tale in not-quite chronological order. Two players, seated up in a balcony alcove, strummed their way through the Dance with Mandolins, the E flat clarinettist weaving a stratospheric line. The brass powered its way through the Montagues and Capulets and crunched out Tybalt’s death throes, while the violins swooned in a heady Balcony Scene. Two contrasting English encores – Walton and Elgar – made for charming parting gifts.

***11