A century ago, Iceland had never heard a symphony orchestra in concert. Now the country has a world-class orchestra and a roster of native composers to champion. Three featured in the ISO's debut Prom, under its music director Ilan Volkov.
Two works were inspired by the volatile nature of the land the composers grew up walking on. Magma, a 1999 piece by Haukur Tomasson receiving its UK premiere, began with the strings trilling tensely, creating a sense of something about to happen, and gained release in music of teeming energy that was liberally punctuated by woody percussion. The unison wind playing was not entirely clean in the peaceful passage at the work's centre, but Volkov drove his players hard in the closing section and made vivid work of its throbbing, stuttering and unexpectedly topical effects.
The prolific Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was coolly regarded by the classical world, especially in his final years. Despite the perennial success of his sweetly sentimental children's TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), his approachable, mostly tonal and undeniably old-fashioned music is hardly performed in concert halls. Of his two dozen operas, only The Telephone and The Consul crop up with any regularity.
This is why a chance to see The Medium, a success on Broadway in the 1940s, with intermittent staging since, proved irresistible, even if the work itself did not quite a deft and intrepid production by Operaview notwithstanding. It was staged as part of the annual Grimeborn festival at the Arcola theatre in east London. This summer event, like the comparable Tête à Tête festival at King's Cross, offers a dynamic showcase for new artists and companies, and an edgy alternative to mainstream operatic grandeur. The work of each is vital and wide-ranging, with an influence on the burgeoning opera scene far beyond its fringe identity.
These two Polish composers, born and dying within years of one another, tackled the string quartet medium at different stages in their long careers. Witold Lutoslawski (1913-94) wrote his only example, in two sections and lasting just under half and hour, in 1964. He uses his favoured device of controlled aleatory as well as exploiting highest pitches, near inaudible pianissimos and brilliant furioso outbursts, which the Tippett Quartet deliver with relish. Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary year this is, came to chamber music later: his First Quartet dates from 1976, with two more in subsequent decades. He, like Lutoslawski, had a gift for textures of extreme delicacy and detail, and the mood in each though full of contrast is predominantly beguiling and pensive.
This world-premiere recording, which came out earlier in the summer, confirms David Matthews (b.1943) as a natural composer for voices here, the full-bodied, occasionally untamed Bach Choir as well as a richly gifted orchestral colourist happy to find invention in tonality and tradition. The Vespers, religious in impulse rather than doctrine, use Latin texts with grand orchestral eruptions and explosions, ethereal choral writing and implicit reference (described by Matthews in a note to the piece) to Hindu tradition as well as Christian. Three poems by Rilke, that most spiritual of poets, are sung in English by soloists and interspersed. The Symphony No 7 (2008-9), with its beguiling opening viola theme, is full of climactic, thundering event and a lyricism Vaughan Williams or Sibelius might have envied.
No fine words were necessary, no heartfelt plea for peace. As another ceasefire failed and Gaza once again descended into violence last week, young Israelis and Arabs joined together at the Albert Hall in a musical expression of solidarity more eloquent than 100 rousing speeches.
Daniel Barenboim with Palestinian scholar Edward Said, inspiration behind the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra knew his young players would speak peace through their music; there was no need for him to repeat the stirring oration he gave when they last appeared at the Proms two years ago.
A new pianistic voice, the Russian-German Igor Levit (b. 1987) boldly entered the recording scene last year with late Beethoven sonatas. Here he moves back to Bach and is equally stimulating. Every note in these six Partitas crackles with life: this may not please lovers of "objective" Bach: the sound is bright and brilliant but can be hard, and some speeds are eccentric: the whizz-bang Scherzo in the Third Partita makes the Gigue sound plodding. What won me over is a rhythmic flexibility that reflects the structure of these wonderful movements, like the little pause at the top of the second half of the Second Partita's dazzling Capriccio.
There are few performers better-versed in the music of Claudio Monteverdi than Rinaldo Alessandrini and the ensemble he founded 30 years ago, Concerto Italiano. In 2007 they brought a five-part madrigals series to Edinburgh; this year their visit was all-too-brief a single concert done and dusted in less than an hour. I could have happily sat through several times that.
The great appeal of Concerto Italiano's playing (and singing, though in this instance their instrumentalists outshone their vocalists) is how natural and unmannered it sounds. Take Alessandrini's harpsichord playing: his touch is simple, clean, spacious, full of buoyancy. He revels in Monteverdi's outlandish harmonies with a terrific sense of pacing and flux, but he limits extravagant ornamentation, which is no bad thing.
Iceland Symphony Orchestra make their Proms debut tonight, in a concert called Classical Tectonics
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra makes its debut at the Proms on Friday night; a concert called Classical Tectonics in homage to the thrillingly adventurous, all-contemporary Tectonics festivals that their chief conductor Ilan Volkov puts on with them every year, and which he has also brought to Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
At the Proms, Volkov masterminded the magnificently chaotic, cactus-enhanced concert for John Cages centenary a couple of years ago, and last year, gave another brilliant showcase of new music from Fredric Rzewski to Morton Feldman. All of which makes this years Iceland programme look, on the face of it, much more conservative, with Schumanns Piano Concerto (the soloist is Jonathan Biss, who made his Proms debut last Friday with a scintillating performance of Bernard Rands Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and is now making a habit of Friday nights at the Royal Albert Hall) and Beethovens Fifth Symphony. But Volkov brings a similar imagination to the core classical repertoire too, which ought to make the Fifth Symphony an unusually seismic experience.
Classical to ragtime, blues to pop, its time to tinkle the ivories, press the pedals and lift the lid on those string-hitting hammers
The piano aint got no wrong notes, said the free-flowing, flawless Thelonius Monk. Marvin Gaye, however, stared at the 88 keys and was looking for more: These cant be the only notes in the world. Theres got to be others some place, in some dimension, between the cracks on the piano keys. Perhaps thats where his own combinations of notes came in. The pianoforte, whether honky tonk upright or elegant 12ft Steinway, has always offered music on a grand scale, a place to express a full range of emotions. And among the greatest, Frédéric Chopin, in his darkest moments, declared that sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano. What virtuoso despair that must have been to witness.
Such deep emotions, however, can be reproduced or reinterpreted by others. Here they are reflected in Roman Polanksis Oscar-winning film, The Pianist, based on the autobiography of Polish Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman.
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