Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham. April 26 2023. 5*****. William Ruff


Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

April 26 2023


Review: William Ruff


Iceland may be a small island but it produces big-hearted music-making

Iceland punches well above its weight when it comes to classical music.  The island’s total population is barely half that of Nottingham’s urban area and yet it can field a world-class symphony orchestra attracting top soloists such as Wednesday’s star pianist, Sir Stephen Hough.

The work of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir began the concert: her symphonic poem Metacosmos, as much sound sculpture as music, something experienced not only with the ears but through the rib-cage as well.  Anna has explained it herself: ‘The title refers to…falling into a black hole, going beyond to the other side and arriving somewhere that you did not know and had no control over.’  It’s only 14 minutes long but it really does feel as if we are being taken on a cosmic journey by forces beyond our control.  It’s a piece full of surprises: serene one moment, violent the next as the music veers between chaos and beauty.  Although the orchestra has recorded it, it’s the sort of piece you really have to experience live to feel the pulsations and to see how the extraordinary sounds are created.

Sir Stephen Hough was the soloist in Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, a work which broke the concerto mould when it was composed.  It’s Beethoven’s only minor key concerto and it’s in a key (C minor) which he reserved for his weightiest compositions.  It starts quietly but insistently: Beethoven knows exactly where he is going and in the power of his musical argument.  There’s no ambiguity and no prevarication.  Such a concerto is surely a gift for a pianist like Stephen Hough.  Except that there is no pianist quite like him: a polymath with not only wide musical interests but also in the fields of art and literature. 

His first entry in the opening movement nailed his colours to the mast: his uncannily apt placing of the angular, pointed theme, temporarily offset as it is by a much gentler idea.  The slow movement seemed even more sublime than usual, a world away from the vigour of the first movement, propulsive drive replaced by tenderness and high drama by warmth.  This performance was a remarkable for its overall sense of architecture as for its attention to fine detail, clearly the result of a close musical rapport between Sir Stephen and conductor Eva Ollikainen. 

Sir Stephen wasn’t allowed to escape without an encore: the Melody in F by Russian composer (and teacher of Tchaikovsky) Anton Rubinstein.  This wasn’t just a well-licked musical lollipop: instead it was a recreation of a very particular kind of period style in which elegance and individuality count than strict adherence to the letter of the score.  Hough wasn’t actually wearing a velvet smoking jacket – but he sounded as if he was.

In the second half came Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, a work dominated by a brooding motto theme representing one of the composer’s most persistent ideas: the idea of succumbing to one’s fate or attempting to liberate oneself from it.  The dark, brooding opening bars were loaded with tragic weight in this Icelandic performance before the movement starts a journey which Tchaikovsky himself described as being full of ‘murmurs, doubts, laments and reproaches’.  This dark mood doesn’t last, however. 

The slow movement is one of Tchaikovsky’s best, famous for its glorious horn solo (played with dreamy eloquence by the ISO’s principal horn) and the third movement waltz glittered elegantly. However, it was in the finale that this performance really came into its own: the character of the fate motto completely changed into one of noble defiance.  The ISO threw enormous energy into the vigorous emotional battle which rages, making sure that it was this heroic spirit which emerged as the victor in a final triumphant parade.  It’s almost always an ending which has the audience standing and cheering.  And after a performance as thrilling as that by Eva Ollikainen and her orchestra it’s no wonder the response was as full-throated as it was prolonged.

Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Eva Ollikainen, conductor

Sir Stephen Hough, piano

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