Santtu-Matthias Rouvali, the only guest helming the New York Philharmonic in two subscription series this season, continued his collaboration with the orchestra with a similar programme to the one he conducted last week: a New York premiere, followed by a pair of well-established works, this time from the early 20th-century catalogue.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

In an interview from January 2021 – around the time her Catamorphosis was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic – composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir explained the title of her work as having a double meaning: “It refers both to the risk of catastrophe and to the morphing between the various polar forces.” Co-commissioned by the Philharmonic as part of Project 19, commemorating the centennial of the ratification of 19th amendment that allowed American women the right to vote, the score is divided into seven sections performed without pause. 

From the initial percussion, harp and piano hues in the first bars of Origin to the whispers at the end of Evaporation, Thorvaldsdottir draws a transformative arch, traversing a territory where suggested images – wind, fleeting clouds, steady rocks and maybe even a volcanic eruption – seemed reminiscent of her native Iceland. Strange and eerie, with its constant pull and push between harmony and dissonance, the music could very well be considered as a soundtrack for an art movie like Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Even if one could perceive some longueurs in the 20-minute score, Thorvaldsdottir’s woven textures, as brought forward by Rouvali and his players, were something to constantly marvel at. Fluctuations, never abrupt, and waves calming towards the end made me think that the biological term of katamorphosis – the evolutionary change based on the inhibition of differentiations – is as good a justification for the composition’s title as the one coined by the composer herself.

Nemanja Radulović
© Chris Lee

With his rock star looks, Nemanja Radulović, making his Philharmonic debut, caused quite a stir before his bow had even touched the strings. His playing of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor was technically immaculate, with phrases elegantly shaped, especially in the second movement. Any display of virtuosity was constantly subsumed by the goal of imbuing musical phrases with poetic expressiveness. One might have wished that contrasts – between the lyrical and the virtuosic, introspection and extrovert display – could have been more obvious in Radulović's rendition. Multiple paragraphs reached the listener as if a translucent glass panel somehow filtered their brilliance, with little of the composer’s sarcasm and irony, and no “fiery angel” peeking from around a corner. Nonetheless, there was plenty of devilish energy in an arrangement of Paganini’s 24th Caprice that the spectacular violinist offered as an encore.

Nemanja Radulović and Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Chris Lee

Of the six works Rouvali conducted during his two-week stint with the Philharmonic, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps was, undoubtedly, the best known. Hence, for better or worse, comes the possibility of comparisons with other interpretations. Overall, this was a well-balanced performance, with no passage unduly emphasised. Rouvali guided with a sure hand, navigating between the many dynamic and rhythmic pitfalls of the score, bringing out the amazingly rich colours in its tableaux. Starting with principal bassoon Judith Le Clair’s impressive ad libitum incantation, individual players acquitted themselves with distinction in their endeavours. In this comprehensive test of the revamped David Geffen Hall’s acoustics, most details were heard with clarity, although the brass sound was occasionally overbearing.