The quickness of the wrist deceives the eye. On his first live appearance with the Philharmonia since becoming its Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali limited his flamboyance to an elegant but oft-recurring twirl of the hand, whether to greet the audience, direct the orchestra or acknowledge his musicians. On the strength of this stirring evening of Strauss the 35-year-old Finn is set to become a welcome Southbank resident so we’d better get used to his carpal pirouettes.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia
© Mark Allan

The Philharmonia takes the “Mirga” route and markets him as “Santtu”, even though an Anglicised stab at Rouvali wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Any latent cynicism about his appointment (yet another Finn!) was swept away in a mighty opening night of the new season that he conducted with vision, nuance and an epic sweep that signalled a formidable talent.

The pairing of Also sprach Zarathustra and An Alpine Symphony ticked several boxes. First, it enabled the new boss to work with over 100 of the Philharmonia’s finest players, both core and extras, in an act of mass bonding. Second, both works depict journeys from night to sunrise – and lord knows we could do with more of that in our lives just now. Half-forgotten tingles of optimism spread almost tangibly through the Royal Festival Hall as the massive scores were unloaded into eager ears. Third, more prosaically, the two works sat comfortably under the Philharmonia’s latest umbrella theme: “Human / Nature: Music for a Precious Planet”.

Also sprach divides neatly if unevenly into the part that everyone knows and the part that goes on a bit. After the splendour of that familiar Sunrise only the rising three-note trumpet motif has much after-life, so conductors have to guide the listener through the remainder by force of interpretation. Notwithstanding some transcendent playing from the Philharmonia (delicious string work in Of the Backworldsmen; some immaculately integrated registrations of the RFH organ by Richard Pearce) and for all his confident navigation of the score, Rouvali did not quite carry me with him during the 35-minute work’s longueurs. Not until a gracious waltz through the bucolic Dance Song did my own ear get back on track; up to that point, however gorgeous the ebb and flow of texture and tone, Nietzsche’s musings on man and nature felt occluded by note-spinning.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Philharmonia
© Mark Allan

Eine Alpensinfonie was another story. This day in the life of an Alpine landscape is a more mature work than its companion, perhaps because it forsakes philosophy for vivid musical painting. Strauss’ vacillation between the literal (cowbells and sleighbells and, for all I know, Schnitzel with noodles) and the impressionistic (the sonic majesty of On the Summit) might seem a flaw, but technical distinctions aside this is one of his most stirring tone poems – and certainly his mightiest, with 16 offstage horn and brass players supplementing the century of platform musicians.

Strauss could see the Alps from his home in Garmisch, and what a view he must have had! It inspired him to create a work that’s grand without being grandiloquent throughout a 50-minute duration that flies by as theme upon theme unfolds. And Rouvali tracked the score’s majesty with easy bravura and an architectural shaping that served it magnificently. Tip o' the hat to his flick of the wrist.