I’m not sure there is any record of Maurice Ravel ever meeting Jean Sibelius. One fears how the fastidious Frenchman might have got on with the alcoholic, cigar-puffing Finn as their tastes and music were very different. An unlikely source united the two composers in this Philharmonia programme under Santtu-Matias Rouvali – Vienna, each half opening with two very different takes on the waltz. From the giddy, implosive world of Ravel’s La Valse to the slow melancholy of Sibelius’ Valse triste, this set up a concert of great contrasts… and contrasting results.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu

We began with Vienna viewed through a Parisian lens. In La Valse, Ravel’s heady depiction of decadence and decay was set up wonderfully from the queasy opening pulse. Rouvali, his wild mop of hair bobbing in time, maintained a swift tempo, swirling around the ballroom before applying the brakes a little too soon, the cataclysmic coda being more of a controlled explosion.

I have vivid memories of Alice Sara Ott playing the two-piano transcription of La Valse, a finger-crunching account in tandem with Francesco Tristano, next door in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Ott’s contribution to the programme here was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, bringing us to 1920s Paris heavily infused with jazz. Bounding onto the stage, she launched into the concerto’s glitter and glissando opening with the lightest of touches. In a concerto that can attract percussive playing, this was a deft, suave account, Ravel in a silk cravat, sashaying between smoky bassoons and jaunty piccolo. In the Adagio assai central movement, Ott sprinkled her cascading runs over Jill Crowther’s lyrical cor anglais solo like icing sugar sieved over a particularly delicious French dessert. After enjoying the humour of the swanky finale, Ott returned with Chopin’s E flat major Nocturne as an encore, dispatched with such flow and purpose that it almost turned into another waltz.

Alice Sara Ott
© Esther Haase | DG

Valse triste signalled the shift to Scandinavia after the interval, but there was no plummet in emotional temperature. Rouvali’s Sibelius was a hair-raising ride, accelerator and brake applied liberally, all too theatrical and mannered for such an introverted miniature. Sadly, the bumpy journey continued with an overly histrionic account of the First Symphony.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Russia tried to strangle the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland and the Finns were struggling to survive, yet Sibelius’ First Symphony cries out for a romantic Russian sweep worthy of Tchaikovsky. We know Sibelius was deeply affected when he first heard the Pathétique: “There is much in that man that I recognise in myself,” he told his wife. Much of the symphony is Russian in outlook, although there are forebodings of the sparse orchestration of the composer’s later years: a bleak clarinet solo, eloquently phrased here by Mark van de Wiel, over muffled timpani roll; glacial strings; icy pizzicatos that pierce the skin. But Rouvali’s febrile account careered through the score with youthful impetuosity, reluctant to let the music breathe, even in the ardour of the second movement’s great string melody. The Scherzo was hectic rather than playful, the woodwinds in the trio section returning us to the bilious world of Ravel’s ballroom. All rather strange and, for a Finnish conductor, an own goal.