Iceland Symphony Orchestra
February 8 2020
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
High-voltage, vividly colourful playing from Icelanders on tour
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra began its UK tour in Nottingham on Saturday and for conductor Jan Pascal Tortelier being back in the Royal Concert Hall clearly brought back fond memories of performing with his father (the great cellist Paul) shortly after the venue first opened in the 1980s.
They brought with them not only an impressively large ensemble (one wondered if there was anyone left at home minding the fjords) but also a programme which could hardly be called run-of-the-mill. In fact it included a piece commissioned ten years ago by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and given its 49th performance by the orchestra on Saturday. It’s called Aeriality, lasts 13 minutes, and evokes the state of gliding through the air with little or nothing to hold on to. If that suggests both freedom and fear, then that’s a good way of approaching music which seems poised between earth and sky. It is a hugely atmospheric piece whose fluidity and spaciousness emerged from Tortelier’s tight control of orchestral colour and dynamics.
The Ravel Piano Concerto on the programme was also unusual inasmuch as it was originally written for a pianist who had lost his right arm in the First World War. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was the soloist and, if you hadn’t been able to see that he wasn’t using his right hand, you would never have guessed simply by listening to the music. It’s a work which constantly surprises, beginning with deep rumblings in the basses and a whalelike song by the contrabassoon and continuing with much that sounds bitterly ironic as well as yearningly vulnerable. Bavouzet made the cadenza near the concerto’s end seem particularly poignant, its intense physicality enhanced by the near-impossibility of performing it one-handed. Running up and down the keyboard in vast arpeggios, he plucked a tender tune out of a titanic sense of struggle, with one hand imitating two. After such an emotionally devastating performance, one might have thought that Bavouzet would have collapsed in a recovery room; instead he played an encore: Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, capturing its elegance, wit, brilliance and mystery in the process.
Selections from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne suites opened the concert, with Tortelier digging deep into French soil to give earthily rhythmic bite to the dance-like movements. The Adagio was especially beautiful in the way the music was made to evolve quietly and gradually with a natural grace.
Sibelius’s 1st Symphony was given a high-voltage, vividly colourful performance from its opening mysterious drumrolls and brooding clarinet solo through to the sweeping big tune of the finale. Red-blooded playing combined with an impregnable sense of where the music was heading left the audience wanting more. And the orchestra obliged: two small gifts for their British hosts in the form of poignant Walton and dazzling Elgar.
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano