Philharmonia / Rouvali review – top dog designate shows his pedigree

Royal Festival Hall, London
Freshly announced as the orchestra’s next principal conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali directed a sizzling and sensual programme of Adams and Stravinsky

At least one of the questions currently surrounding the future direction of the Southbank Centre’s resident symphony orchestras was answered last week, when the Philharmonia announced that Santtu-Matias Rouvali was to be its next principal conductor. The 33-year-old Finn is currently one of the orchestra’s principal guest conductors, and he will take over the top job from Esa-Pekka Salonen in two years’ time, while also continuing in his current post as chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

Understandably the Philharmonia made a bit of an occasion out of Rouvali’s first appearance since his appointment, and with a nice sense of continuity, his programme of John Adams and Stravinsky could have easily have been one that Salonen had devised.

But on the podium Rouvali projects a very different persona from that of his fellow countryman – hyperactive, almost balletic, and instantly communicative. For all the extravagance of his technique, though, he showed that he can still obtain playing of sizzling virtuosity and vividness from the orchestra; the central section of Adams’s foxtrot for orchestra, The Chairman Dances, had an almost Ravelian lushness and sensuality, which contrasted perfectly with the precision of the minimalist textures of the music around it.

There was more tinglingly vivid orchestral flamboyance at the other end of the evening in Stravinsky’s Petrushka – superb playing again from the Philharmonia’s woodwind and brass principals – and a neat link across the decades to the Adams in the pulsings of some of the quieter episodes. But as well as brilliance there was a great deal of wit too, as Rouvali placed the woodwind interjections with unerring skill. Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto provided the centrepiece. Pekka Kuusisto was the unexpectedly restrained soloist in a performance that identified the second of the work’s two arias as its expressive centre of gravity, and made the most of the work’s baroque affiliations; as if to underline that connection, Kuusisto’s encore was some Bach, played with whispering intimacy.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 4 June.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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