What I love about concerts of well-known pieces is starting the day not knowing what you’re going to get. The exciting new talent of Santtu-Matias Rouvali provides a certain unpredictability, and he opened his account with the Philharmonia Orchestra as joint Principal Guest Conductor in a colourful all-Russian programme showing amazing physicality as he floated dance-like around the podium with clear, if slightly exuberant, baton direction but with real intent and genuine musicality.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu

Dmitri Kabalevsky might not have been the most adventurous of 20th-century Russian composers, but he was certainly one of the more successful and prolific. His 1938 opera Colas Breugnon was written at the same time as his best-known work, his suite The Comedians. The opera itself is not really seen in opera houses, but you do occasionally come across extracts in the form of his symphonic suite. The most popular by far is the Overture, which serves very well as a stand-alone piece. In a rip-roaring opener, Rouvali skipped his way through this five-minute burst of energy with charm and verve. It was a zingy performance, but with a minor lack of tightness and a slight imbalance.

Rachmaninov wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A minor in 1934, during his latter years in which he wrote some of his finest works but was slowing down in his compositional output, partly due to failing health but also because the musical world seemed to be overtaking him. Modernism was becoming more in vogue, and his particular brand of tonal romanticism was no longer flavour of the month. The increasingly impressive Denis Kozhukhin gave a vibrant and sensitive account of this work, showing subtle varieties in pace and temperament and with understated power. There was a pretty brisk opening pace, however, which felt a little too close to the edge, although it was just about held together. From that point onwards, the piece flowed effortlessly between excitement and restraint, nicely judged in the orchestra by Rouvali, who brought out some fine detailing and some well executed solos. For all its colour and effervescence, there were no histrionics here, just thoughtful and genuine playing and with a wonderfully fluid and soul-stirring Variation no. 18 (the famous one) to warm the cockles. 

Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition, was written for piano in 1874 and arranged many times, the most successful and accomplished by Ravel in his 1922 orchestration. Inspired by the works of Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky’s piece imagines a stroll though an art gallery, pausing to take in certain pictures before moving on again. The Promenades between the tableaux were in safe hands with the Philharmonia’s wonderfully golden brass and the floating, singing quality of the woodwinds. Rouvali excelled in the slower pieces, really maxing out the resonance of the Philharmonia sound in Bydło’s gradual build up and dying away, while creating a sombre, chilling atmosphere in Catacombs. The Old Castle was a particularly fine rendition, with a gloriously intense string sound and some very fine wind solos to give a steadfast but plaintive veneer. The faster pieces, while thrilling, were less controlled and a little untidy in places, such as in Gnomus and Tuileries, although things were crisper and rather cheeky in The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and The Marketplace at Limoges. I especially enjoyed the macabre, slightly sinister drive of the witch Baba-Yaga leading into the glory of The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev, with a performance full of majesty and grandeur and bringing things to a spine-tingling climax.