Company residencies aren’t a new thing for the Edinburgh International Festival but, for several reasons, they’re becoming more normal – and, I’d suggest, more desirable. Maybe it’s down to the aftereffects of the pandemic, or to reducing the impact of climate change, or even (whisper it) to increase the overall artistic quality, but it feels like the days are long gone when an orchestra would fly in from America on Monday morning, play a concert, and then fly out again on Tuesday.

Seong-Jin Cho
© Ryan Buchanan

Residencies are attractive for UK orchestras as well as international ones, and the Philharmonia is taking centre stage for the festival’s first week. They’re the pit band for Garsington Opera’s Rusalka at the Festival Theatre, they’re playing for a concert version of Fidelio, and their chamber players did the very first Queen’s Hall concert. This, however, is the only concert where it’s all themselves alone, and the only one to feature their principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali.

Rouvali has had a relationship with the Phiharmonia for years, but this is the first time I’ve had the chance to see his fluid, almost balletic conducting style up close. He conducts with a flick of his wrist and a wiggle of his waist, at one point almost getting on his knees to acquire a particular pianissimo. That matched the music that he conjured forth for Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 in E minor. Smaller waves of phrasing cohered into one great arc of passion in the first movement, moving from the sepulchral opening to the searing climax via several miniature dramas in between. Flowing gestures produced flowing sounds, with the different musical lines emerging from one another, helped by top-notch orchestral playing from the midnight-black low strings to the inky wind solos and, later, the thunderous brass that strode centre-stage for their part like actors in a drama.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Ryan Buchanan

The third movement had the spectral mystery of a Mahler Nachtmusik, lightened by a sparky sense of mischief in the DSCH music, though Elmira’s theme sounded clear and questioning. The second movement felt somewhat constrained in contrast, and it seemed like the orchestra had more to give. This was caged animal music rather than the white-knuckle ride it could have been, and something similar afflicted the finale’s turn to delirium, which came across a little too sensible and well-behaved. Rouvali seemed a bit rattled by some inter-movement applause that he clearly didn’t like. Still, this was a penetrating reading that saw into the symphony’s dark heart.

Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, on the other hand, was all sunshine and smiles. This was a big, symphonic Beethoven sound, and all the better for it, with a full complement of vibrato-rich strings and glowing horns. Not only was it a muscular sound, but Rouvali also chose old-school tempi, too: I can’t remember the last time I was able to sink into the sound of the second movement like this without feeling that I was being hurried along. That meant that the orchestra balanced beautifully alongside the piano of Seong-Jin Cho, the warmth of whose piano playing was a real treat. Cho was the master of the notes, but his playing was all about the poetry instead of the showmanship. There were no gratuitous musical fusillades here; even those double octaves in the first movement’s development section sounded structural and purposeful rather than demonstrative. He and Rouvali conspired to play the finale like a playful caper, gentle and mischievous, playing with a smile on its face. 

****1