It’s been a good month since Santtu-Matias Rouvali made his successful debut with the Munich Philharmonic. Yesterday, he returned to Munich’s Gasteig hall with the Gothenburg Symphony, of which he has been Chief Conductor for two years, in a concert principally dedicated to the works of fellow Finn Jean Sibelius. Together with Alice Sara Ott, the Gothenburgers performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, which Ott had substituted at short notice in place of Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2. A few days previously, Ott’s Facebook page broke the news that she had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, with a consequent reduction in her concert schedule. The substitution into the programme of this lucid, jazzy piano concerto, written by the Frenchman between 1929 and 1931, turned out well, with Ravel’s colourful, cheerful sound world providing a remarkable contrast with the dark, clear sound of the Finn.

Alice Sara Ott
© Esther Haase | Deutsche Grammophon

Ott developed the concerto with smooth lightness and a seductive sense of flow. In her sound, the score swung between the big city and the excess of the 1920s. Ott has an unerring instinct for a soft attack and the resulting soft colours in the tonal palette. She was completely natural in the way she played with the dynamics, first bringing herself outside the orchestral sound and then melding into it. She spun out the long breathed phrases of the Adagio, and interpreted the introductory solo passage with the strength of a storyteller and self-absorbed intensity in the ensuing Ballade.

Just as drastic was the contrast with Presto, which advanced with its short but expressive fireworks. With a light and transparent sound, the Gothenburg Symphony created an impressive accompaniment, as well as making their own contribution with colourful accents of harp and jazzy brass. Ott’s encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, was undiluted Romanticism.

In the works of Sibelius, the Gothenburgers explored sound worlds on a large scale. The orchestra and Rouvali are currently engaged in a cycle of his symphonies, and you could hear the focus that Rouvali has brought in the performance of Finlandia and of the Fifth Symphony.

Rouvali played the tone poem with powerful expression and obsessive detail, skillfully avoiding the danger that this music can become a shallow national anthem – which is surely a risk for him as it is for any of his fellow countrymen. Rouvali played far more with the complex tone colours; he let the cellos grumble after the trumpet fanfares, always keeping tight control of the many details of the sound.

The impulse to disrupt developed further in the Fifth Symphony, with Rouvali showing no desire to smooth out its rough-hewn organic edges – which was all to the good. Laden with emotion and with a rich texture, the orchestra seemed at first sight to be in contrast with the graceful, dancing gestures of its conductor, who created clear contours and communicated firm instructions. He varied his tempi cleverly, developing lyrical narrative as he had done earlier in Finlandia. It was with melancholy that the orchestra interpreted the swan theme in the last movements, ending in the final six chords. Those individual chords were separate to the point of being torn apart: the stillness and the tension between them was savoured with relish by Rouvali.

For an encore, the Gothenburg Symphony floated through the Philharmonie with the Valse triste, also by Sibelius. In Rouvali’s hands, even the encore felt like a small orchestral jewel, making it clear that he treated even this ghostly waltz with the same attention to detail as he had given to the preceding symphony.

Translated into English by David Karlin.