Sunday, 31 August 2014

Prom 48: Ever Icelandic - Tectonics at the Royal Albert Hall

Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Proms Debut - Photo Alistair Muir
Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra
at the BBC Proms - Photo Alistair Muir
Haukur Tómasson, Jón Leifs, Beethoven, Schumann; Jonathan Biss, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Aug 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Unstoppable forces: two Icelandic works in the Iceland orchestra Proms debu

Unstoppable forces of nature made their presence known at the Proms on Friday 22nd August. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, curator of the ongoing Tectonics Festival - now in its third year, performed works by two Icelandic composers Haukur Tómasson (1960-) and Jón Leifs (1899-1968).

Inspired by the nature of his homeland Tómasson was commissioned to write 'Magma' ('Storka' in Icelandic) by the Warsaw Autumn music festival in 1998 and revised it a year later in 1999. Focussing on the number five - each of the five movements (floating, animated, cantabile, coagulating and rigorous) have five sections and five note motifs abound.
It begins with growling on brass with icy strings and brittle percussion. Very deep notes from the tuba later reminded me of 'In the hall of the mountain king' by Edvard Grieg. Little pops and runs heralded the first hints of volcanic activity. Not afraid of unison passages to clear the ear for the denser work with detailed imitation and canon, lines floated to the surface only to be overtaken as the orchestra swelled into a loud and forceful fight which tamed into a calmer aspect by the end.

Tómasson used an interesting soundworld of instrument combinations, producing a piece of music which seemed familiar yet was completely unique.

Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Proms Debut - Photo Alistair Muir
Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Proms Debut
Photo Alistair Muir
Leif's 'Geyser' also began low in pitch but now on woodwind - something very old a primeval with a hint of the gnomes from 'Pictures at an Exhibition' by Modest Mussorgsky, but which are quickly dispelled when the upper strings come in but leaving the breathless breathing reminiscent of the opening of 'Verklärte Nacht' by Arnold Schoenberg.

The geyser's dramatic eruptions were heralded by timpani. Each section added to the violent rising of steam and superheated water. It required lots of physicality especially from the strings – when they were not providing the spume edge of the column of water with tremolos there lots of repeated upbows from the violins. Calming down it returned to the growling of low woodwind which had underpinned the entire work.

Described by the Managing Director of the orchestra, Arna Kristin Einarsdóttir, 'Geyser', written in 1961, describes Iceland as seen by Icelanders and has come to represent the 'spirit of the nation'. Despite now being heralded as the father of modern Icelandic music Leif was overlooked during his lifetime. 'Geyser' did not receive its premiere until 1984, 16 years after Leif's death.

As an encore the strings played 'Hughreysting (Consolation), Intermezzo for string orchestra, Op. 66' written in the last year of his life. You only had to close your eyes to be breathing out clouds into frosty air. Chords which might also have been at home in a piece by Vaughan Williams were transformed into something distinctly Icelandic.

Alongside the Icelandic stories was 'Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54' by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Ludwig Van Beethoven's (1770-1827) 'Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67'. I am not sure why these two concert staples were programmed alongside the vividly programmatic Icelandic offerings other than something rigid and solid to balance out the flowing and motile 'Magma' and 'Geyser'. The BBC's Tom Service lauds the 5th Symphony as 'tectonically shocking' – whether you agree or not it still does not explain the frippery of the Piano Concerto.

Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Proms Debut - Photo Alistair Muir
Ilan Volkov and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's Proms Debut
Photo Alistair Muir
Jonathon Bliss was at the piano for the Schumann. Written in 1841-5 for his wife Clara, who played the first ever performance on New Year's Day in 1846, Schumann intended that this concerto should be a revival of the concerto form but where the orchestra was no longer relegated to second best and instead was an equal partner.

Bliss' performance brought a lovely sound quality from the piano which matched the richness of tone from the orchestra. He used a lot of Romantic rubato, moving in and out of time with the orchestra who, regardless of the conductor's best efforts, could not keep up with these micro changes.

While not my cup of tea, this was evidently intentional and Bliss' preferred style of playing. Once freed from constraint – in his solo encore 'Der Dichter spricht' from 'Kinderszenen' - every note that could conceivably have its value changed was lengthened or shortened, the tune well separated (and very delayed) from its accompaniment, and many a hung note left indulgently to 'dazzle' on its own.

The Beethoven was far more successful largely due to the rich tone of the orchestra which I have already alluded to. The lower strings were confident and each section played as one individual, even through fast passages. This ensured that subtle interplays between parts, which are often lost amidst the bluster of the 'da da da dum' theme, were heard like new. The brass and horn sections were clear and bright but without any hint of harshness, and the woodwind soloists all deserved notice. This is an orchestra for other orchestras to aspire to.

The final encore was a rip-roaring gallop of an interpretation of the folk tune 'Sprengisandur' by Icelandic composer Sigvaldi Kaldalóns (1881-1946) for the whole orchestra – complete with whinnying ponies.

You can listen to this Prom on BBCiPlayer for as long as it lasts here and here. The recording brings the piano in the Concerto very much to the fore while in the actual performance it was much more part of the orchestral sound as Schumann intended, and the richness of the low sounds in the Icelandic works are not as vital as they were live, but they are still worth listing to.
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