Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Kaapo Kamu
Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu
Santtu-Matias Rouvali is an exciting conductor to watch. The young Finn looks even younger than his 30 years and conducts with his entire body, moving with the athleticism of a gymnast and the grace of a dancer. Add a mane of curls to outdo Dudamel and knee bends to win a limbo dancing contest and the result is quite a package. In last night’s all-nordic programme of Sibelius and Martinsson, it was clear that Rouvali is totally at home in this repertoire: his choices of tempi and dynamic phrasing were faultless and broadcast with energy and detail.

The question that remained was whether the Philharmonia would absorb all this energy and follow the detail, and in this, the results were mixed. At their best, when the timing all clicked, the Philharmonia produced some big sound and high octane thrills. But co-ordination between different instrument groups was patchy, resulting in some missed opportunities. Sibelius’s music is full of moments where a high impact theme in, say, the woodwind, seems to rise organically out of the string sound, and if the timing of the cross-fade isn’t absolutely perfect, the results sound OK, but lack that last quantum of excitement.

Lemminkäinen’s Return is a dangerous work with which to open a concert. It’s a cinematic work that brilliantly embodies the spirit of adventure, and you don’t get many bars of low timpani and double bass growl before many themes are passed rapidly hither and thither between strings, brass, woodwind, percussion. To get maximum effect, the timing has to be sharper and the instrumental entries have to be more confident than they were last night. It was still a great piece – but could have been greater.

Rolf Martinsson’s trumpet concerto Bridge is a phenomenal piece of music and Håkan Hardenberger, for whom it was written in 1999, is a phenomenal trumpeter. The work is so technically demanding and so interwoven with Hardenberger’s personality that hardly anyone else has dared to attempt it.

Håkan Hardenberger © Marco Borggreve
Håkan Hardenberger
© Marco Borggreve
Two things struck me: the first was how similar Hardenberger sounds to some of the great bepop jazz trumpeters, playing cadenzas without the syncopation but with the same fluidity in extracting the shape of a melody from a rapid cascade of notes. The second was the extraordinary level of control that Hardenberger achieves when playing quietly. To watch him play those quicksilver runs of notes, at a mere fraction above the breath level where the instrument stops making a sound at all, was an awesome experience. Bridge is a work full of contrasts, and like Lemminkäinen's Return, it can be very cinematic. It saw Rouvali and the orchestra on safer ground, both in the quiet, sparse textures early in the work and then in the gigantic orchestral climaxes that ensue.

Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2, which formed the second half of the concert, is so packed with melody and atmosphere that it’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and Rouvali was exceptionally sure-footed in leading the Philharmonia through its shades of light and dark and its explosive melodic outbursts. The highlights, for me, were the huge brass fanfare in second movement and its succeeding crescendo in the low strings, as well as the first entry of the big string theme in the finale.

For all my reservations about some of the individual instrumental playing last night, Rouvali is a huge emerging talent, imparting boundless energy to his orchestra – it was hardly surprising when he discarded his tail coat for one of the curtain calls, dripping with sweat after all that exertion. I’ll look forward to seeing him develop.