Santtu-Matias Rouvali Makes His Mark Energetically with the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kabalevsky, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel): Denis Kozhukhin (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.10.2017. (CS)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali (c) Kaapo Kamu

Kabalevsky – Overture, Colas Breugnon Op.24
Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op.43
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

Last month Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducted his inaugural concerts as Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.  In this concert at the Royal Festival Hall, the young Finn took the Philharmonia Orchestra through their paces, in his first performance as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.  These are two big appointments for Rouvali.  On the evidence of this concert, although his dishevelled hair, slight form and piercing stare give him the air of a somewhat recalcitrant adolescent, he has a mature head on his shoulders and more than enough energy, ideas and courage to fulfil these new roles with flair, imagination and impact.

Speedily weaving through his players, once on the podium, Rouvali is a force of nature: his left arm carves huge circles, his hands curl and flutter, the baton – perched very high – flicks and points, while his knees bend and feet dance with the fleetness of a ballet dancer as he curves and sways from left to right.  At times, I confess I found this incessant, theatrical movement distracting; there were times when the music seemed to call for a little more stillness and repose.  But, Rouvali’s means and methods certainly get results.  He is pin-point precise, and his players clearly know what his gestures demand.

The opening bars of Dmitri Kabalevsky’s overture to his first opera, Colas Bruegnon, were a torrent of colour and the syncopated, dancing theme went with a swing, so to speak.  Rouvali emphasised the rhythmic verve, creating a sense of brio as he dashed through the sparkling melodies without the tunes ever running away from him.  The trombone offered some more weighty rhetoric, the horn a touch of ‘rawness’.  The lyrical section did not quite ‘settle’, though, and while this was a fittingly flamboyant reading and an effervescent concert opener, the bubbles burst a little untidily in the final bars.

Denis Kozhukhin’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody would have benefited from some of the overture’s passion and nuance.  Kozhukhin was unwaveringly poised and technically precise but disappointingly detached.  Only once, and briefly, did he look up from the keyboard, towards the strings, seemingly disinterested in the orchestral contribution.  Kozhukhin’s tone was surprisingly ‘metallic’: clean but hard – often the upper register had a ‘tinkling’ brightness.  There was little dynamic variation, and phrases were seldom allowed to ‘breathe’.  Even Variation XIII was short on the accustomed expressive rubato; and, here, the pianist did not enhance the melodic poignancy through the nuanced interplay of the sweeping triplets in the left hand against falling semiquavers in the right, just as the temporal ambiguity of the preceding variation was not exploited.  The acciaccaturas of Variation II were exaggerated, emphasising dissonance.  The performance – particularly the first eleven variations – had an underlying feeling of ‘haste’, as if Kozhukhin just wanted to get through the business at hand as quickly as possible.  Needless to say, there was no encore.

Rouvali didn’t allow the Philharmonia to indulge in Romantic excess: the introduction was quite dry and taut, though the violins’ unison theme did generate persuasive momentum.  The swift transitions from variation to variation were skilfully executed, but I think that the breathlessness meant that some of the details passed by without due delineation – the horns’ marcato accents as they join the piano in the statement of the Dies Irae theme, for example – though the slightly greater spaciousness of the fantasia-like Variation XI did allow the woodwind to speak more expressively.  I may be mistaken or unfair, but as the strings joined the soloist in the melodic effusiveness of Variation XVIII, they did not all seem to be swept up in the innate, heart-string tugging power of Rachmaninov’s sentimentality; there’s nothing wrong with an ‘anti-Romantic’ interpretation, but the music still needs to communicate, between the players, and between them and us.  Rouvali did create a sense of building towards a close but I think the engagement was too far diluted by that point for us really to be swept along by the music’s ardour.

The Philharmonia seemed much happier in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition after the interval; here, Rouvali’s fancy footwork and grand gestures were entirely in keeping with the score’s pictorial vibrancy and confidence.  It was fitting that the work opens with a trumpet solo, for Alistair Mackie was on fine form all evening; he was joined in his ‘Promenade’ by a brass section whose playing was noble and unfussy.  Rouvali searched for every texture and colour: the double basses growled darkly in ‘Gnomus’, the saxophone’s song was redolent with noble dolour in ‘Il vecchio Castello’ – Rouvali let the final note ring – as the bassoons interweaved tenderly.  The conductor heeded the Allegretto non troppo marking in ‘Tuileries’, which meant that the texture was wonderfully lucid and crisp.  The strings’ heavy tread in ‘Bydlo’ was ‘lifted’ by some excellent tuba (Michael Levis) and euphonium (Byron Fulcher) playing, while timpanist Antoine Siguré raised the roof in surging crescendos.  I liked the restraint show by the strings in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ – not too much vibrato or yearning droopiness – while in ‘Limoge: Le Marché’ the scintillating orchestral swirls were matched by Rouvali’s own pirouetting.  In ‘Baba-Yaga’ there was certainly no sense of anything less than 100 percent-plus commitment from the Philharmonia, and if Rouvali milked the theatre of the final portrait of ‘The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev’, then who could blame him.

Claire Seymour   

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