Hough’s Beethoven steals the show

Iceland Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall ★★★★

This was a welcome return to Birmingham for the orchestra, who first visited two years ago, on the road for its 70th anniversary celebratory tour. They are part of a vibrant and thriving classical music scene which is remarkable for a country with a population smaller than, for example, Bristol or Bradford. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is a fine musical ambassador for her country. Last year the CBSO gave the UK premiere of her apocalyptic score 'Catamorphosis' which impressed me for Thorvaldsdottir’s assured handling of large orchestral forces which combined passages of great beauty and immense power without ever resorting to bombast. The ISO performed her 2018 score ‘Metacosmos’ which also evoked a potent sense of mystery and wonder. The sinister, slithering start with a threateningly rumbling deep bass and keening strings was the stuff of nightmare – if the ‘Alien’ movie franchise is rebooted Thorvaldsdottir should immediately be signed up for the soundtrack. Eva Ollikainen, the orchestra’s chief conductor, also elicited some beautiful string playing for the consolatory ending, with light at the end of a dark journey. She provided astute leadership for the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 where, while the orchestra lacks the tonal depth and richness of sound for an ideal performance, it certainly punched above its weight. The waltz movement had plenty of charm and the barnstorming finale – where Ollikainen followed Tchaikovsky’s mezzo-forte direction rather than blasting it out – was greeted enthusiastically by the audience.

At the concert’s heart was a trenchantly-played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 by Sir Stephen Hough. It’s the dark horse of the five concertos, the only one in a minor key, sitting between the exuberant earlier works and the G major’s lyrical beauty but it’s Hough’s favourite and this performance explained why. Hough made the first movement cadenza sound as if being created on the spot with a small pause, waiting for the continuation to reveal itself, before dispatching the movement’s climax with immense power. The spontaneous applause was merited and received graciously by Hough. The central Largo is tricky but Hough captured it’s time-suspending stillness without becoming becalmed and the orchestra’s crisp playing in the fugal section was excellent. The snappily driving allegro vivace was breezily and assuredly delivered.

Norman Stinchcombe

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