Iceland SO/Tortelier review – anniversary tour finds bright tones and striking textures

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
On a 70th anniversary tour, the orchestra, under Yan Pascal Tortelier, delivered strident Sibelius, bright Ravel and a striking contemporary calling card

Many orchestras have a calling card, a work from their home country that they make sure to take with them on foreign tours. For the Iceland Symphony Orchestra that is Aeriality, which their current composer-in-residence, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, wrote for them in 2011. The 14-minute piece is included in every one of their concerts on their current UK tour with chief conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, which marks the orchestra’s 70th anniversary this year.

Thorvaldsdóttir describes Aeriality as a portrayal of the sense of freedom gained from flying, and the “feeling of unease generated in the same circumstances”. But it’s a convincing abstract piece, too, a striking study in orchestral textures, with slowly shifting masses of sound that are sometimes enriched with quarter tones, pierced by solo woodwind lines or dissolved into Ligeti-like micropolyphony, before eventually fading away in a unison for the whole orchestra.

It was followed by a rather strident, excitable account of Sibelius’s First Symphony, mostly primary-coloured, and revealing some coarse-grained string tone as well as the absence of any genuinely quiet playing. The approach worked best in the Scherzo, least well in the Andante immediately before it, but Tortelier made sure the drama of the finale was plotted to a thoroughly convincing climax.

The first half of the concert was all French. Both conductor and orchestra made surprisingly heavy weather of a selection of movements from Bizet’s two L’Arlésienne suites, ending with the inevitable Farandole, but they were far more convincing in support of the soloist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Some performances emphasise the work’s dark introspection; Bavouzet’s approach was far more outward looking, bright-toned, almost flamboyant. He threw in a concert study by Gabriel Pierné as an encore, while the orchestra countered with two pieces after the Sibelius, both British – a number from Walton’s Henry V film score, and a movement from Elgar’s Wand of Youth.

•At St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 13 February. Then touring until 16 February.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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