Iceland Symphony Orchestra review


Symphony Hall *****
Making its first-ever UK tour, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra brought a breath of clean Nordic air to Symphony Hall, playing with a freshness and enthusiasm which made all of us in a well-filled auditorium feel warmly embraced.
These charming players responded with delight to the hall's qualities (their own magnificent Harpa hall in Reykjavik was designed by the same Artec company), and Yan Pascal Tortelier, who previously conducted here with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, relished the opportunities to nuance phrasing and dynamics.
Movements from Bizet's L'Arlesienne, scored for large orchestra now instead of its original pit band, made a sturdy opener, gorgeously coloured, followed by an absolutely stunning account of Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
Soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet relished the sheer physical aspects of delivering this masterpiece, sweeping across the keyboard, balancing precariously upon the piano-stool, and never underplaying the work's notorious difficulties. Yet at the same time he also delivered the work's wit and poetry, sometimes dark, sometimes visionary, and his control of the virtuosic Lisztian textures (all in one hand, remember) managed to be both unobtrusive and spectacular.
Tortelier's orchestra obviously loved this collaboration, and so did we. Bavouzet brought his right hand back to life with his encore, Pierne's Etude de Concert, so clearly introduced by this delightful artist.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir was present to hear her Aeriality given a committed, understanding reading. Described as an "ecosytem of sounds", the work evokes wakening nature, wispy tapestries subtly evolving; the moment where the long-held tonic pedal shifts downwards is something quite arresting, as is the creeping-in of an unexpected radiance. and the eventual noble, slow-moving string melody before the proudly unassailable major chord of the ending. This was undoubtedly one of the most successful contemporary orchestral pieces heard in recent years here.
Some of its nature-imagery evoked Sibelius, and in fact we ended with a bracing, elastic account of that composer's problematic First Symphony, Tortelier making organic sense of its sometimes disconcerting amalgam of moods, every section of the orchestra naturally highlighted as details emerged.
Particularly notable was the rich, open string sound, coming properly into its own in the great melody of the finale, first heard low down in register, and later impassionedly full-throated.
And the string sound provided the perfect first encore, "Touch her soft lips and part" from Walton's Henry V film music, before the rest of this wonderful orchestra roistered in for Wild Bears, from Elgar's Wand of Youth.
Christopher Morley

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