Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Tortelier

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

GERMAN pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who commissioned a slew of works from top composers after he lost an arm in the First World War, would have appreciated Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son’s choice of wardrobe to play the best known of them, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The blue asymmetric dress had one full length sleeve for her unemployed right arm, while the busy left one was bare from shoulder to her highly articulate fingertips.

Aside from its distinguishing single-hand characteristic, the work is mid-20th century music at its most jazzily colourful. It may be no coincidence that the Frenchman made his only visit to New York, and met George Gershwin at a party in his honour, shortly before its composition. But it is also a piece that is very eloquent with the bass sonorities of the orchestra — double bassoon, bass clarinet and the string basses — as well as the lower notes of the keyboard. All of this was exquisitely clear in a wonderful performance by the soloist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier.

The veteran French conductor is about to relinquish the reins as the orchestra’s chief conductor and artistic director, and this was the final date of the orchestra’s tour with Tortelier at the helm. If he was undoubtedly part of the attraction for Sunday afternoon concert-goers, the Icelanders brought a flavour of their homeland in the programme’s second half opener, Aeriality by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Anna Thorvaisdottir. Commissioned for the opening season of Reykjavik’s acclaimed Harpa Concert Hall in 2011, it was first conducted by Ilan Volkov during his tenure as chief conductor, and played by the BBC SSO under him in Glasgow three years later. Using the full, very large, orchestra for most of its quarter-hour duration, it is a wonderfully atmospheric composition.

Tortelier directed the concert’s opening and closing works — selections from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suites and the First Symphony of Sibelius — from memory and with passionate athleticism, and was rewarded with superb playing across the stage. Another Usher Hall Sunday Classics delight that was well up to the standard of music-making we expect in the venue at Festival-time.