Tuesday 11 February 2020

Yan Pascal Tortelier & Iceland Symphony Orchestra's 70th birthday tour reaches London with Yeol Eun Son in Ravel and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's riveting Aeriality

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Iceland Symphony Orchestra)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Iceland Symphony Orchestra)
Bizet, Ravel, Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev; Yeol Eum Son, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 10 February 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra's first UK tour brings a dazzling performance from pianist Yeol Eum Son and a riveting, magnificent piece by Anna Thorvaldsdottir

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra's 70th birthday tour of the UK (its first UK tour) reached London's Cadogan Hall on Monday 10 February 2020 when, under conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, they played Bizet's L’Arlésienne, Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, with soloist Yeol Eum Son, and a selection from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, plus Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality.

It must be Bizet season in London, what with ENO’s Carmen over at the Coliseum and now a sizeable selection of music from the Suites to Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. Quite a way from the red-blooded passion of Carmen, L’Arlésienne is full of charming but undemanding music. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra, known through their recordings for BIS, is a fine if not exceptional orchestra. The sax player, Sigurdur Flosason made a strong impression (as he did in the final Prokofiev). While the Iceland SO might not have the most burnished sound (the strings in the ‘Minuetto’ were a tad harsh on the ear), they make up for it in characterisation; and the string control at the end of the Adagietto was perfect. The bright and brash finale (the ’Farandole’) brought this extended, five-movement starter to a close.

Yeol Eum Son and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Yeol Eum Son and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son distinguished herself at the Thirteenth Van Cliburn Competition in 2009, wherein she came second to a tied first place of Nobiyuki Tsukii and Haichen Zhang (no third prize was awarded). Her Harmonia Mundi disc as a result of that featured a Haydn Sonata, Barber’s Piano Sonata, Debussy’s first book of Préludes and a Godowsky Metamorphosis (on Fledermaus). That this took place a few years ago and her name is still not on everyone’s lips (at least not in the UK) seems a shame, as this was a performance of Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto of great strength, phenomenal (left-hand) technique and complete grasp of the Ravel sound-world.
The rapport between herself and Tortelier was miraculous – and how fabulous were the double bassoon solos, so attractively phrased. But it was Son’s playing that took the breath away, dignified, fluent, creating the most melting of sounds from her Steinway, producing suave glissandi and wondrous pedal-free staccatos. She found, and relished, the jazz overtones of the piece, too, while the cadenza positively glowed.

Son’s discography is notably small, although an Onyx all-Mozart disc appeals greatly (it includes the 21st Piano Concerto with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Marriner). She also makes an appearance on the DVD of the relevant Cliburn Competition (Euroarts). But she deserves to be heard more, of that there is no doubt. And we did hear a bit more of her. One encore, the scrumptiously crepuscular Nocturne in D flat for the left hand alone, Op. 9/2, by Scriabin.

Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
The music of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has been receiving a lot of attention, not least because of a Deutsche Gramophon portrait disc devoted to her music that included the present piece, Aeriality (2011). Uncompromising in its outlook, it is magnificent. Open consonances at the outset seemed to act as a sort of scaffolding for the fluttering dissonances they contained. Sudden shards of tonal light surfaced. The contrasts are deliberate, taken from the word play of the title (a composite of ‘aerial’ and ‘reality’). Compositionally, there are surely parallels to the ‘cloud’ technique of Ligeti, in which each player does their own thing resulting in a haze of simultaneous strands; but Thorvaldsdottir occupies her very own sound-space. A huge sea of strings allowed for the beauty of the composer’s imagination to shine. For such a large orchestra, there were only three percussionists (restrained for a contemporary composition such as this!). Thorvaldsdottir’s daring is rather to pursue an individual way. The 13 minutes flew by. As the composer says, the piece is ‘on the border of symphonic music and sound art’. There is what she describes as a ‘lyrical field’; there is a moment where the music veers daringly towards the filmic. Yet there is a gorgeous, velvety darkness there, too, disturbing but inviting. Riveting and magnificent; and the Iceland players responded superbly to the music, Tortelier leading confidently.

In addition to that Deutsche Gramophon disc, there is quite an extensive discography for Thorvaldsdottir. There is another disc devoted to her music, this time for ensemble, on the Sono Luminus label, that is worthy of attention, entitled ‘Aequa’ [see Robert's CD review]; but those two are just starting points. The Manchester-based group Psappha has just (February 6) performed a coupling of Thorvaldsdottir’s 40-minute In the Light of Air and Schoenberg’s Pierot Lunaire; a glance at the composer’s website shows performances of her music are rife. And so they should be.

Finally, Prokofiev, a selection of music from Romeo and Juliet selected by Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Ten pieces, from the well-known ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – and how those jarring dissonances sounded like a close cousin to the Thorvaldsdottir –to ‘Juliet’s Death’ formed a journey that was multi-coloured and engaging. A pity the quiet string ‘shadow’ of those huge opening chords to ‘Montagues and Capulets’ was a little too projected; but how powerful were the brass thereafter.

Yan Pascal Tortelier and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Yan Pascal Tortelier and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
One connecting thread through the concert was Tortelier’s superb sense of rhythm, and just how rock-solid that was; an aspect that paid huge dividends in the Prokofiev, a composer who thrives on setting up regularity only to play with it, or to subvert it. Some beautiful solos here, not least from the clarinet of Grimur Helgason; front desk work from leader Sigrun Ervaldsdottir, second violin leader Pall Palomares and principal violist Thorunn Osk Marinosdottir provided a moment of great beauty in the Balcony Scene. Wonderful to see two mandolins in the raised space above the back of the stage for, appropriately enough, ‘Dance with Mandolins’; and all credit to the high strings towards the end for their stratospheric escapades.

Much to admire here, then, with Yeol Eum Son the clear highlight of the first half and the Thorvaldsdottir piece the star of the second. Two brief encores [Walton’s ‘Touch Her Soft Lips and Part’ from Henry V, and ‘Wild Bears’ from Elgar’s The Wand of Youth, Suite 2] saw us home (there was almost a third, I think, but not quite).

Reviewed by Colin Clarke 
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