In the same week as its Principal Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, announced his departure from the orchestra he has led with considerable success for the last thirteen years, the Philharmonia welcomed its Principal Guest Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali for the first of his three concerts in the orchestra’s 2018/19 season. Rouvali’s growing relationship with the Philharmonia is quite clear in the dynamic on stage and this concert suggests that it’s starting to pay musical dividends. An all-Strauss programme has something of an appeal to it, and the pieces seemed well-chosen to balance and complement each other while also allowing an appreciation of the composer’s sheer diversity. The first two, Artur Rodziński’s arrangement of Der Rosenkavalier in suite form and the Four Last Songs demonstrated Strauss’ innate ability to capture and depict the essence of humanity, mundane and glorious, petty and superlative, while An Alpine Symphony sees Strauss deploying his musical paintbrush to render nature with vivid clarity.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Kaapo Kamu
Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu

One can’t hear the Rosenkavalier Suite without a tinge of sadness; it’s a hotchpotch twenty minute precis of a three hour work of genius. However nimbly sewn together, a performance can never really be transformative. Rouvali’s interpretation started ominously with a badly fluffed horn note, and a clunkiness that betrayed the Viennese elegance of the music, but the orchestra pulled together for a delicate depiction of The Presentation of the Rose, silvery and light in the strings. Rouvali was at his best here and in the finale, basking in these slow moments of reflection when he teased out both detail and emotion, but oh for a little more froth and bounce in moments that cry out for energy. In a piece that is inherently stunted, an orchestra is rarely able to transcend the composition and the failings of the performance were not consequently too much of a dismay.

Transcendence encapsulates the Four Last Songs, in which for this performance our soloist was soprano Sophie Bevan. Staying true to form, Rouvali favoured slower tempi which worked well in all except Frühling which was just a touch too sedate. Kinks from the opening of the concert were dispelled; individual playing was extremely clear, golden and gleaming in colour, but restrained by Rouvali from descending into a lush aimlessness. Bevan’s voice, soaring in the higher register, felt a little unsupported in the middle, but she judged the phrasing of the songs well and there were some lovely pianissimi which compensated for the slight absence of heft to the voice. Mention must be made of guest leader Benjamin Gilmore’s elegantly shaded solo in Beim Schlafengehen and the gorgeous woodwind trills in Im Abendrot.

The highlight of the evening was unquestionably Rouvali’s splendid reading of the Alpine Symphony. Pacing was measured, at times consciously slow, but without being ponderous, and behind it was a palpable feeling that the sound was being propelled forward. For a section that started the evening on an error, the playing from the brass was immaculate with sustained trumpet playing of the highest calibre which really shone in “Auf dem Gletscher”. Rouvali’s ability to focus on the moment while retaining an eye on the architecture of the whole work was superb and considering the size of the forces involved, the level of clarity that allowed for definition of sound was strong. Climaxes were taken with nuance and Rouvali avoided losing a grip on the narrative by allowing too great a release within individual moments until “Auf dem Gipfel” when the triumphant arrival was rammed into every pore of the skin by the strings, an exultant outpouring that caught the breath, the brass blazing across in perfect balance. The concert would have been worth hearing for those three minutes alone.