"Passion by Way of Iceland And the Idiosyncratic"
by Alex Ross
The New York Times, February 29, 1996
The lonely residents of Iceland had never seen a symphony orchestra when the Icelandic composer Jon Leifs conducted the Hamburg Philharmonic on tour in 1926. The island nation had no full-time orchestra until the founding of the Iceland Symphony in 1950. It might not seem possible for such a remote place to have cultivated a first-class orchestra in so little time, but the Iceland Symphony, under the direction of Osmo Vänskä, defied expectations with a sensational Carnegie Hall debut on Tuesday night.
Part of the fascination of the program came from the presence of Leifs's own bizarre, beguiling music. He was born in 1899 and spent his early career in Germany, but his works drew on Icelandic folk music from the start. With its organumlike bass lines in parallel fifths and grinding intervals of the tritone, the native idiom supplied a stark, austere vocabulary; Leifs added his own idiosyncratic touches, including dark, weird orchestration and brutal percussion. The "Galdra-Loftur" Overture, although early, is typical of his ungainly, dissonant, unmistakably original sound-world.
The program then took a dip with Grieg's Piano Concerto. Ilana Vered tossed off a splashy, crude, overpedaled account of the solo part. But one began noticing the orchestra's fine qualities: smooth, burnished string tone, bright, focused winds and handsome, well-behaved brass, an excellent balance overall.
The orchestra sounded no less accomplished in Sibelius's Second Symphony, but by the end of the first movement it became evident that the true hero of the evening was Mr. Vänskä. This 43-year-old Finn, who has also done great things with the provincial Lahti Symphony in Finland, is an expert interpreter of Sibelius, as he has proved in various recordings for Bis. On the strength of this concert, I would say he is something more: a real master of orchestral drama who produced one of the finest Sibelius performances I have encountered.
Mr. Vänskä delivers an exceptionally clear, decisive beat, but he also imposes continual gradations of tempo, harking back almost to a Wagnerian style of conducting. His restless indications for dynamics produce an unending flow of crescendo and diminuendo. At the same time, his Sibelius is absolutely unsentimental and anti-Romantic, with crisp attacks and abrupt fades. What resulted was a performance of cold passion: tense, severe, fiercely expressive. It was staggeringly good.
Perhaps this was simply an exceptional night for an orchestra on its first North American tour. But if Mr. Vänskä regularly leads performances like this back in Reykjavik, Iceland loses nothing in its isolation.