Philharmonia/Rouvali review – new principal conductor proves himself a fine Straussian

Royal Festival Hall, London
In his first concert as the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali brought a glowing string sound and irresistible elan to an all-Strauss programme

Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s first concert as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor also marked the start of the orchestra’s Human/Nature series, examining musical responses to the natural world and mankind’s often disastrous relationship with it. New works by John Luther Adams, Bryce Dessner and Isobel Waller-Bridge address climate change later in the series. Rouvali began, however, with Richard Strauss at his most colossal, prefacing the Alpine Symphony with Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The two works are linked. Also Sprach Zarathustra looks at both man’s relationship with the universe and human striving for self-transcendence in the wake of Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God. Among Strauss’s initial plans for what became the Alpine Symphony, meanwhile, was a work based on Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, depicting “moral purification through one’s own strength”, vestiges of which remain in the symphony’s depiction of a climbing expedition confronted not only by nature’s awesome beauty, but also with its power and changeability.

Philharmonia perform R. Strauss with new Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali

With the Philharmonia on tremendous form, Rouvali proved a fine Straussian, measured in his approach, and careful in his attention to detail and colour. It’s a style well suited to the Alpine Symphony with its arch-like structure and inexorable narrative trajectory of ascent and descent, during which the thematic and harmonic material of the first half buckles and distorts as nature gradually gains the upper hand. The escalating tension was beautifully controlled, the colossal forces (well over 100 players) superbly marshalled, the sheer volume of sound always integral to the drama, never an end in itself.

Zarathustra, however, took a few moments to find its feet. Once past that famous, monumental opening, the Backworldsmen section – depicting those believing in an afterlife – felt fractionally too slow, despite the glowing string sound, though the performance really took wing at Of Joys and Passions, where the sensuousness was immediate and the elan irresistible. The tension and tempos relaxed a bit too much again when we reached the scientists’ fugue, though the whirring excitement as we approach the Dance Song was irresistible and the ambivalent finale, in which man and nature remain at odds, was exquisitely done.

Available on BBC Sounds until 29 October and available to stream on from 14 October.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Esa-Pekka Salonen to step down as Philharmonia conductor
Award-winning orchestra will begin search for a sixth principal conductor ahead of Finn’s departure in 2021

Imogen Tilden

04, Dec, 2018 @4:00 PM

Article image
Philharmonia/Rouvali review – bold programme that sparkled
Despite a shrunken symphony orchestra and high stakes, the Philharmonia’s American Dreams launched their online season with music-making at its best

Flora Willson

30, Oct, 2020 @10:16 AM

Article image
Philharmonia / Rouvali review – top dog designate shows his pedigree
Freshly announced as the orchestra’s next principal conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali directed a sizzling and sensual programme of Adams and Stravinsky

Andrew Clements

31, May, 2019 @5:11 PM

Article image
Philharmonia/Rouvali/Levit review – secure and clear-sighted Beethoven
The Emperor Concerto – at the centrepiece of this Philharmonia concert – became a moving tribute to the late Lars Vogt, and Anna Clyne’s lively triptych Color Field and Dvořák’s Seventh offered much to admire

Andrew Clements

06, Nov, 2022 @3:09 PM

Article image
Prom 38: Philharmonia/Santtu-Matias Rouvali review – raucous but undemanding
Rouvali’s Proms debut as principal conductor of the Philharmonia could have been more challenging; while violinist Jennifer Koh was understated on Missy Mazzoli’s Procession

Andrew Clements

16, Aug, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Bruce Liu/Philharmonia/Santtu-Matias Rouvali review – an unexpected but refined UK debut
Last year’s winner of the International Chopin competition, Bruce Liu, was a late substitution for this all-Tchaikovsky programme, but made light and elegant work of the challenging Second Concerto

Andrew Clements

14, Mar, 2022 @2:51 PM

Article image
Philharmonia/Blomstedt review – 91-year-old conductor brings thrills, poise and menace
The irrepressible nonagenarian conductor’s readings of Beethoven and Berlioz were detailed and vivid.

Andrew Clements

11, Apr, 2019 @4:06 PM

Article image
Philharmonia/Rouvali review – nervous energy gives tremendous results
A swaying, dancing Santtu-Matias Rouvali conjured precision and excitement while trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger played at the edge of possibility

Martin Kettle

29, Jan, 2016 @12:17 PM

CD: Classical review: Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos 12 'The Year 1917' and 6; Strauss and Youmans Arrangements, Philharmonia/BBCSO/Rozhdestvensky

(BBC Legends)

Tim Ashley

11, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Philharmonia/Salonen review – superb UK premiere for rediscovered Stravinsky
Funeral Song, honouring the composer’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, led a night that also delivered powerhouse Ligeti from pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Tim Ashley

21, Feb, 2017 @2:55 PM