Music review: Iceland Symphony Orchestra & Yan Pascal Tortelier, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

“Are you still part of it?” quipped conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, explaining that he’d finish the eighth and final concert in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s UK tour with two encores of British music. Joking aside – and despite persuasive accounts of the brief movements from Walton’s Henry V and Elgar’s The Wand of Youth – it did feel like a surprisingly long concert.

Yan Pascal Tortelier
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Iceland Symphony Orchestra & Yan Pascal Tortelier, Usher Hall, Edinburgh **** 

Ironically it was the concert’s most audience-friendly element – movements from Bizet’s L’arlésienne, which opened the programme – that felt a little redundant, not helped by the rather heavy reading from Tortelier and his Icelandic players. 

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Their closer, Sibelius’s First Symphony, was finely articulated and energetic, but too many opportunities for drama and contrast were passed by seemingly unexplored.

In between, however, came two brilliantly arresting experiences. First, South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son’s remarkably chiselled, fluent account of Ravel’s Left Hand Piano Concerto.

Son was astonishingly dextrous in Ravel’s one-handed dashes up and down the keyboard, but also balanced a granitic power with a sense of melting poetry, her solo passages exquisitely shaped and delivered with calm conviction. Tortelier and his orchestra, too, seemed to relish the work’s brooding menace and quicksilver mood swings in an incisive account.

After the interval came the ear-tweaking Aeriality by the orchestra’s compatriot Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, more a sound installation than a conventional piece, which expertly explored horizontal and vertical sonic space with shifting harmonies and elemental eruptions of noise, thoroughly compelling and given a vibrant, sharply etched reading by Icelandic musicians clearly at one with the music. David Kettle