Last month the Philharmonia announced the appointment of Santtu-Matias Rouvali as one of the orchestra’s principal guest conductors and this concert at the Royal Festival Hall was the conclusion of a three stop tour round England that has marked the latest stage in his relationship with the orchestra. The programme was cheeringly unusual: two quintessentially English works, Holst’s The Planets and Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor tinged with a welcome Eastern European contribution from Smetana by way of Vltava from Má vlast.

Santtu-Mathias Rouvali © Kaapo Kamu
Santtu-Mathias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu

The Smetana was the most problematic of the pieces, Rouvali’s interpretation lacking any real sense of a romantic spark to elevate the performance from competent to inspired. Vlatva is Smetana’s depiction of the course of the Czech river from springs to mouth, but here a decent froth to the woodwind and lively brass unfolded into a river that felt clogged and stodgy rather than clear and fluid. Pacing was fine – perhaps a little slow at times, but nothing controversial – but that imagery that comes so easily of Smetana from a clear direction was absent. A rallying for the poem’s conclusion was evocative, but failed to dispel altogether the disappointment of the majority.

Terra firma was struck with the arrival of soloist Alban Gerhardt for the cello concerto. Gerhardt’s unmannered approach delivered a poetic reading of the piece that avoided the floridity that seems to be a risk with this work. Vigorous strokes at the opening of the Adagio gave out an earthy, autumnal flavour; the evolution into the main melancholy theme was pellucid and crisp. Controlled vibrato and subtle lyricism were on display throughout, but it was the tenderness treatment of the third movement that really stood out with Gerhardt’s marvellously light pianissimi. His playing seemed well-integrated to the Philharmonia’s approach, warmly collegial when balanced with the other strings. Rouvali had a clear appreciation for the architecture of the concerto and drew a classically Elgarian sound from the orchestra.

After the interval came Holst’s astrological, not astronomical nor mythological survey of the known planets of our solar system. Rouvali again seemed to be more assured in his approach to the character of each movement and avoided any sense of homogeneity. The opening of Mars was taut; The Planets leaves very few opportunities for the brass to avoid scrutiny and their performance throughout the suite was impressive – aggressive, even-toned and with an obvious unity between the players. The all-guns-blazing Mars and bombastic Uranus saw them at their best. Warm and enticing playing from the harps in Venus was complemented by the mildness of the flutes and a fragrant solo from the concertmaster. Tempi struck me as a touch misjudged in Jupiter and a slight loss of coherency amongst the orchestra here might have been a reflection on the frenetic gesticulations of Rouvali – balletic on the podium, his movements were too messy for personal taste and there seemed to be a correlation between calmer gestures and easier playing from the orchestra. The concluding Neptune movement was suitably mystical, the Leicester University Chamber Choir & Leicester Bach Choir offering an eerie contribution from off-stage.