Violinist Pekka Kuusisto is the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Featured Artist for this season. One imagines that a Finnish soloist, with Finnish Principal Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, should produce a central, idiomatic interpretation of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor. In fact they gave the impression of having looked at the work afresh. At the outset the soloist’s entry was more quiet improvisation than statement of the first theme, and Kuusisto, technically impressive, found something individual to say at each of the subsequent rhapsodic and cadential moments.

Pekka Kuusisto, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Philharmonia
© Mark Allan

It is a feat to play a piece he knows so well as if he is inventing it in the moment, and an admirable way to avoid staleness in core repertoire. But Sibelius’s concerto has not always enjoyed its current high status, (he was stung by negative press into a major rewrite), and its first movement can seem to ramble, as at times here. Dynamics occasionally approached the threshold of audibility, as if Kuusisto felt this music should whisper its secrets. Rouvali did inject symphonic momentum into the stirring tuttis, and Kuusisto’s playing of the second movement was passionate from his first long melody onwards. In the finale the tempo and inexorable rhythm imparted a good sense of the dance, with the soloist’s abundant virtuosity and whistling harmonics near the close. “J S Bach or folk music?” he asked, and upon the audience requesting the latter, he became an impish folk fiddler leading us into the interval.

Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony should be second nature (sorry) for a conductor avowedly at home in the portion of Finnish forest he owns. Yet the opening was disconcerting, with a swift period performance tempo for the first phrase then a very slight relaxation into the next phrase. At least we sat up rather than relaxed into the ‘warm bath’ listening this music can encourage. Beethoven’s famous description is “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside” but the smart tempo raised cheerfulness into exhilaration. Certainly the Philharmonia strings exulted in their rural ride, although in Western instrumental tradition “pastoral” implies more woodwind and horn tone should come through in the balance.

The “Scene by the brook”, after an oddly curt opening, had a slightly more traditional tempo, but thankfully still not one that dragged, and the winds now had their moment in the (dappled) sun. In particular the clarinet solos were splendid, long before they were restricted to the two notes of the cuckoo call at the end. The “Merry gathering of country folk” was an Arcadian invitation to the dance, before the deluge approached with ominous rumblings from cellos and basses, and the storm broke. The programme note, praising Beethoven’s orchestral economy here, says “he avoids trumpets and drums”. Fortunately we heard the thunderous written parts for drums in F and C, and even an added bass drum (not in my score but the two mighty thwacks it received were fun, surely sending any dilatory “country folk” scuttling for shelter).

The transition to the finale, despite a horn fluff, was poetically managed by Rouvali, whose direction suggested that, like Beethoven, he knows the spiritual blessings nature can convey – the Pastoral ends after all with this “Hymn of thanksgiving”. Rouvali has his own view of this piece, which might still be in development along with this relationship with his new orchestra, and which should be intriguing to witness. 

***11