Yan Pascal Tortelier’s Icelandic musicians bring warmth to an icy Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, Ravel, Thorvaldsdóttir, Sibelius: Yeol Eum Son (piano), Iceland Symphony Orchestra / Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 16.2.2020. (GT)

Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Bizet – Excerpts from the incidental music for L’Arlésienne

Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Thorvaldsdóttir – Aeriality for orchestra (Scottish premiere)

Sibelius – Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39

On the day of the final concert of the debut UK tour by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, it seemed as if they had brought their own weather with them for Scotland was beset by terrible wintry storms, rain, and bitter cold. However, in the music the Icelanders brought with them, there was more than enough warmth to cheer up any audience. Yan Pascal Tortelier (for a recent interview click here) has been associated with the orchestra for twenty years, and in this final season as their Chief Conductor he brought the orchestra on their eight-concert UK tour.

The orchestra has a majority of women in their ranks, and their strings have an eloquently warm tone, with notably gloriously burnished sound from the brass. In the opening Pastorale selection from L’Arlésienne the woodwind group showed off their outstanding talent – especially the flute of Ashildur Haraldsdóttir, the clarinet of Grimur Helgason, and Bryndis Thórsdóttir on bassoon. In the transitions from the tranquil passages, the orchestra can suddenly produce excitingly dynamically loud playing. In the Carillon, there was a fine cohesion in the strings, with the bells splendidly vivid, in the Minuetto, again tight strings were superbly disciplined with the swift change of tempos well-handled by the conductor. There was also glorious harmony from the saxophone of Sigurdur Flosason, with sparkling articulation from Julia Hantschel on the oboe. The Adagietto, was graced by more gorgeous woodwind playing, and the huge string sections resplendent in the lovely tranquil theme. The Farandole, culminated with the festive march led by the tambourine, and finally bringing a sunlight Provençal feeling to the audience.

Yeol Eum Son (from South Korea) is a swiftly emerging talent who has showed a dazzling gift for fine interpretation of the keyboard repertoire from Bach through to Gershwin and Ligeti. Son won the second prize at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 2011 when Trifonov won the Gold medal. She has developed her career in both chamber recitals, and a growing number of concerto appearances combining this with being the artistic director of South Korea’s biggest music festival. She is a diminutive and fragile figure on stage, yet at the keyboard, she has an imposing authority. The Ravel concerto began darkly on the basses – as if emerging from the depths – followed by an abrupt swirl in rhapsodic colours by the orchestra, and at last the piano entered beautifully picking up the theme. The young pianist doesn’t show her virtuosity as flamboyantly as other young musicians because she is entirely wrapped up in interpreting the composer’s ideas. She has a brilliant, crystal clear articulation, typical of which was her bringing out the nimbly pronounced sardonic idea – backed by marvellous orchestral playing, yet again helped by splendid playing from the wind section, with a burnished hue from the brass. The colourful jazz inflections from the contra-bassoon of Brjánn Ingason were shared throughout the orchestra. The march aroused a magical ambience with brilliance from both soloist and orchestra, creating the ultimate burst of colour in the closing bars. As an encore the magnificently gifted Son played Moszkowski’s Valse in E major Op.34, No.1: at last we could hear the Korean’s complete musicality in full!

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir (1977) – the ISO’s composer-in-residence is an award-winning composer who has enjoyed great success with her best works performed and recorded all over the world. She has avoided the labelling of being in the style of certain twentieth-century composers, for she has a particularly individual musicality in her creativity, and most of all, she reflects on the history and culture of this small nation. Aeriality dates from 2011 and has already been performed by thirty different ensembles world-wide.

The composer writes: ‘Aeriality can be said to be on the border of symphonic music and sound art. Parts of the work consist of thick clusters of sounds that form a unity as the instruments of the orchestra stream together to form a single force – a sound mass. The sense of individual instruments is somewhat blurred and the orchestra becomes a single moving body, albeit at times forming layers of streaming materials that flow between different instrumental groups. These chromatic layers of materials are extended by the use of quartertones to generate vast sonic textures. At what can perhaps be said to be the climax in the music, a massive sustained ocean of quartertones slowly accumulates and is then released into a brief lyrical field that almost immediately fades out at the peak of its own urgency, only to remain a shadow.’

Thorvaldsdóttir’s piece opened on a whining like noise on the strings – creating a chilling atmosphere – introducing sounds like shards of ice descending into the water, invoking a muted chill. The wind sections together with the large percussion section fashioned an intensity of tension. The sense of mystery emerged rivalling the mists of time, and slowly a disturbing idea emerged from the low strings crossing to the violins. Bubbling ideas from the woodwind were like warm lava streams bursting forward into the atmosphere, while the violas held onto an intriguing idea before the chilling close. This is a remarkable piece which notably had its 50th performance during this UK tour.

In the opening Andante of the Sibelius First Symphony, the timpani and clarinet solo invoked the atmosphere for the ensuing Allegro energico. The glorious dramatic sweeping theme was taken up by the whole orchestra, with especially fine playing by the first violins, and notably the harp of Katie Buckley (placing the harp at the front of the stage allowed it to be clearly heard). All of which was strengthened by great woodwind playing and characterisation – surely the glorious heart and soul of this fine orchestra. The violin solo by Nicola Lolli brilliantly announced the poignant, stirring culmination of the first movement. In the Andante – in addition to the magical strings – there was superb playing from the horns, flutes, harp, clarinet, invoking the Russian nationalist influence. There were excitingly dynamic strings in the Scherzo, once more finely enhanced by the woodwind and brass. Although I did notice a slight slackness in the transition between strings sections, albeit thankfully, without upsetting the increasing momentum. In the Finale, there were searing passionate strings announcing the Tchaikovskian theme, until ultimately Tortelier masterly directed a superbly held energetic push as the orchestra brought us to the glorious ending. In response to the enthusiastic audience, Tortelier conducted two encores, both by English composers; Sir William Walton’s ‘Touch her soft lips and Part’ from the film Henry the Fifth, and Elgar’s ‘The Wild Bears’ from his Suite No.2 of The Wand of Youth.

This was an excellent concert showcasing a top-class orchestra as fine as any which have appeared here in recent years. Of course, that Iceland with a population much less than that of Edinburgh can produce such an international orchestra is a miracle, and the whole manner in which this small country supports the arts is something from which all of us can learn.

Gregor Tassie

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