Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 21 April 2023, 5***** David & Paul Gray

Anna ThorvaldsdottirMetacosmos (2017) * Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op.37 (1800) * TchaikovskySymphony No.5 in E minor, 0p.64 (1888)

As conductor, Eva Ollikainen took to the stage, there were audible gasps at her most wondrous attire. As a lady in the row in front of us mused “is that a large black bin-liner she’s wearing?” but then, when the conductress spread her arms to encompass both audience and orchestra, her outfit virtually filled the stage, causing another audience member to quip “gosh, it’s like she’s wearing a vast black bat cape!”

Given such a description of the Maestra’s attire, one hoped that the performance ahead of us would “take flight”, and, Oh my word, it most certainly did! Conductor, piano soloist Sir Stephen Gough, and the mostly marvellous playing of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra took us on a journey into giddying heights. Indeed, as the triumphant Finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony drew to a close, one almost felt that Maestra Ollikainen might simply spread her voluminous cape, take off, circle the Hall and fly-off, Viking-like, into the heroic afterworld she had so perfectly described and brought to fruition in the Tchaikovsky. Thrilling stuff!

The first work in the concert was performed in the presence of its Icelandic composer, Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Her Metacosmos is a challenging piece, and in it its fourteen-or-so minutes, it moves from a dark, almost nihilistic brooding on the origins of everything, from its seemingly endless deep-bass pedal note/drone, upward toward sunnier climes. There was some fine playing from the band here, not least in the vast array of extended percussion. Apparently the inspiration for the piece was the notion of falling into a black hole as a metaphor for the unknown, and then the idea of beauty emerging from chaos.

Next came the Beethoven Piano Concerto. Any chance to hear or see Sir Stephen Gough playing live is surely one of the most exceptional privileges in life. Having had the good fortune to hear Sir Stephen play Beethoven live on various occasions, one is met with the same overwhelming sense of his deep, intimate, personal and technically supreme connection to, and understanding of, the composer, Beethoven, who has got to be one of the most complex of creatives in the history of music.

Gough’s performance of this concerto, together with the tight & expressive ensemble playing of the orchestra, was both revelatory and compelling: it made us listen to the work with wholly new ears. Now Beethoven’s variation-like-form slow movements can sometimes be rather dense to comprehend, but not so here. There was a deeply expressive duet and dialogue between piano and orchestra, and Gough allowed us to be expertly guided through each stage and development in the movement, leading us to a glorious Rondo-Finale, which was performed with the greatest of joy, panache & technical perfection. A stunning performance.

In the second half the Tchaikovsky was performed largely with accuracy, exuberence and technical skill. There was only one gripe to be had: the beauty of the famous horn solo in the slow introduction to the symphony was exquisitely played by the orchestra’s lead horn. However, as this Andante continued to unfold there was some sloppy playing by the orchestra, who didn’t all synchronise with the very clear downbeats given by the conductor. When it came to the start of the (glorious) second movement, Ollikainen waited – and waited – for what seemed like an eternity to ensure the same lack of synchrony didn’t occur again; which, it did not. One could see that every eyeball of every performer was firmly glued to the conductor; and the orchestra knew they had had a bit of a fumble in the first movement, and they were not going to do that again!

Technically, one would give this performance four-and-a-half stars, and not 5*****, but this would be churlish. Other than the little fumble in the Tchaikovsky, this was an outstanding concert of the very highest quality, and one senses that on the rest of their tour the orchestra will not make the same little mistake at the start of the Tchaikovsky twice.

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