PROM 48: The Unique Sound of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 48   –   Tomasson,  Schumann, Leifs, Beethoven: Jonathan Biss (piano), Iceland Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.8.2014. (GD)

Haukar Tomasson   Magma
Schumann  Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.55
Leifs  Geysir, Op 51
Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67


 This was the Proms debut of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and throughout I was intrigued by many of the orchestra’s unique qualities. I say ‘unique’ in the more general sense as it soon became quite apparent that different sections bore a resemblance to other orchestral styles of playing. For instance the woodwinds had a more grainy, plangent tone reminiscent of the best French orchestras; the horns have a more open, even songful sound similar to some of the Scandinavian orchestras.  But, and more importantly,  the overall  sound, texture is unique to this orchestra. It would be fascinating to hear them in a Ravel masterpiece, or in Debussy’s ever fascinating Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune.  Their tonal/dynamic range is enormous, and this was especially apparent in the two works they played by Icelandic composers.

The first of these, also the opening work, was by the Icelandic composer Haukur Tomasson, who came on to the stage to thank the conductor and orchestra and acknowledge the applause. Magma tonight receiving its UK premiere, is best described as an orchestral tone poem, although there are elements of the work that sound more ‘modern’ taking us outside the realm of the ‘romantic’ sounding musical ‘poem’, like the middle section with its rounds of cross-rhythm ostinato. Indeed, the work is built on clusters of rhythmic invention. As with Leif’s major orchestral works (Geysir was also on tonight’s programme) there is the sense that this music was inspired by Iceland’s unique landscape replete with the massive energy of volcanic and other sublime but dangerous natural forces. Also, like Leif’s Geysir, Magma opens with sound-scapes intoned in the lowest (darkest) orchestral registers: bass tuba, trombones and contra bassoons. But, as implied above, there is also a more abstract set of structures working here; tonight’s programme note writer puts it well when he comments on the complex rhythmic structures to be negotiated, Thomasson describes the section as coagulating…:with detached high G sharps for flutes, low Es and D sharps for trumpets and an ethereal string chord. Gradually, the textures thicken and vary, spreading throughout the orchestra, growing louder and more turbulent. All this came over as absolutely compelling tonight both in the playing and the superb conducting of Volkov, here and throughout the whole Prom.

 Overall I felt Biss came over more effectively in the  lyrical, song-like sections of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, as when, after the energetic introduction and a change of key to A flat the soloist in slow 6/4 time  engages in a most lyrical and tender dialogue with the orchestra;  here both soloist and conductor were in accord. Also Biss came over well in the brief but beautiful Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso with its sustained ‘swinging’ theme in celli. But in the bold march-like theme in 2/4 time towards the cadenza and coda of the first movement,and indeed throughout the whole movement,  Biss’s playing lacked the power and brio so compellingly alive  in a number of renditions, both in concert and on disc, I have heard from  Maria Joao Pires. This lack of sparkle (for want of a better term) was particularly apparent in the Allegro vivace finale with its plethora of thematic material. This was a pity as Volkov’s conducting was exemplary, especially in the famous deux-temps rhythm in the second subject of the finale.

 As an encore Biss played a rather slow but well phrased rendition of the last section ‘Der dichter spricht’  from Schumann’s Kinderszenen.

 John Leif’s Geysir was, for the composer, a vivid musical impression of the the awesome powers of nature and the relative insignificance of man. Again it was inspired by the scenic uniqueness of his native Iceland – this time specifically a great geyser as it spews forth boiling water high into the sky. As with the previous Tomasson work, and some of the other orchestral works of Leifs, including the radiant and dangerous Hekla, Geysir begins in the depths of the orchestra. What a wonderfully eerie sound the orchestras contra-bassoon emits! The music moves mysteriously to a massive drum-roll for timpani, then joined by rhythmic incursions from several bass-drums and other percussion instruments. Two sets of antiphonal timpani played in alternating rounds (rolls) off-stage in the upper reaches of the Albert Hall almost made one feel in the midst of an apocalyptic storm!  The percussive sections are crossed over (with trenchant cross-rhythms) by jagged brass interjections, with screeching tutti woodwind, all at various off-beat quasi contrapuntal levels. It is with Hekla, one of the loudest pieces of orchestral music in existence, but it is not merely loud for the sake of being loud. This is  disturbingly and dramatically intense music, as dark and Nordic as anything in Sibelius. This bold and powerful sound-scape is admirably suited acoustically to the vast reaches of the Albert Hall. Again Volkov gave a committed and compelling rendition. Every contrapuntal twist and turn was balanced perfectly to cohere with the huge design of the whole work. I thought it even superior to the very fine recorded performance of Osmo Vanska, In real time Geysir runs just short of ten minutes buts its vastness and monumentality exceed anything that can be measured in clock time.

 To close the Prom (at least as officially advertised) Volkov gave us a refreshingly straightforward rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But when I say ‘staightforward’, this in no way is to suggest that the performance was in any way standardised or bland. Volkov plunged us directly into first movement with the famous arresting four-note figure and sustained the tempo and sense of  Allegro con brio throughout. Volkov never fell into the notorious interpretive pitfalls this masterpiece presents; the famous, and disputed bassoon statement of the opening four bars now in Cmajor just before the beginning of the coda proper was given to the bassoon with a tail-off on the horns – a nice compromise to an old problem, although now most ‘period’ performances opt for the bassoon version. The second movement  Andante co moto came across with a beautiful flowing cantabile quality throughout. The more arresting passages in C major with trumpets and drums (Tovey’s ‘blaze of triumph’) were never overdone, never given a ponderous rhetorical edge, and thus sounding all the more contrasted and compelling. Volkov invested great vigour into the ScherzoThe C major Trio, a fugato in the basses and celli, had remarkable clarity, each strand absolutely audible.  The triumphal tread of the scherzo here was inflected with great rhythmical accuracy; the hard timpani sticks sharply punctuating and cutting through the orchestral texture. The sempre pp bridge transition leading to the finale was compellingly sustained, those timpani taps always audible as were the accompanying pp figures in celli and basses, so often obscured. And Volkov refrained from beginning any kind of crescendo until Beethoven asks for it – eight bars before the ‘Finale’ proper bursts out with its C major ‘Allegro’. The Finale itself had tremendous energy and power without ever sounding inflated, as it often does. With accurately gauged timing Volkov registered the musical significance of those last twenty-four bars in C major; they ceased to be maningless ‘curtain-lowering chords’ but in a revealing way became an essential part of the pattern of the whole work.

 As already alluded to, Volkov did not deploy ‘period’ instruments apart from the hard timpani sticks. But the performance certainly had a ‘period’ feel, with a minimum of vibrato. In fact, in terms of tempi (running at around 31 minutes) and clarity it was remarkably similar to the classic 1952 Toscanini recorded performance, even though Volkov played all repeats – Toscanini omitting the repeat in the Finale. If I have any criticisms it was Volkov’s  use of non antiphonal violins. But this is really no more than a quibble in light of the general excellence of the performance,and indeed the whole Prom.

 Volkov and the orchestra gave us two encores. First a beautiful late and autumnal string composition Consolation by Jon Leifs, and second Sigvaldi Kaldalon’s A Sprengisandi – a brilliant and rousing orchestration of an Icelandic Folk Song.

Geoff Diggines

Leave a Comment