United Kingdom Richard Strauss: Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). The Anvil, Basingstoke, 1.10.2021. (NB)
R. Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra; An Alpine Symphony;
In late March 2020, the Anvil in Basingstoke hosted a weekend of events and concerts celebrating the music of Beethoven. The Philharmonia, as one of the Centre’s Artistic Associates, were the orchestra that day and the concert was well and enthusiastically attended. Two days later Britain went into the first covid lockdown. Few, either onstage or in the audience, could have imagined that it would be over eighteen months before there would be another opportunity to hear a great orchestra playing great music. So, although not presented as a specific celebration, the return of the Philharmonia to the Anvil on Friday night was most certainly a cause for great joy. Additionally, it was the first programme – and just the second concert – given under the baton of Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali in his role as the sixth Principal Conductor of the orchestra.
For this return/renewal, Rouvali picked a pair of Richard Strauss’s most extravagant scores; Also Sprach Zarathustra and An Alpine Symphony. Another cause for celebration in these COVID aware times was to see the large stage of the Anvil packed to capacity with the players required for these two epic works. Make no mistake, these are ferociously demanding scores that need the best players at the peak of their ability. The Philharmonia is widely regarded as a genuinely world-class orchestra, but even for them, there might be a question of 18 months of ‘ring rust’. Not for a moment. Whether one responded to Rouvali’s every interpretative gesture or not, one thing was never in question; the individual and collective brilliance of the orchestra. The playing from first to last was magnificent and a tribute to the hard unseen work for the players over the last year and a half maintaining individual standards never knowing when, or indeed if, concerts such as this would be possible again.
This was the first time I had heard or in fact seen Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s work. He is another product of the remarkable conducting department of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki which seems to produce more international conductors than anywhere else. Part of their success is that their alumni are strikingly individual musicians. Certainly Rouvali has a strong and striking podium presence which combines an occasionally florid crowd-pleasing stick technique with attention to detail and careful score preparation. This results in quite individual interpretations that can be more effective in the detail of a moment rather than across the arc of the score.
The opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra is Strauss’s most familiar and widely known orchestral passage. Immediately, characteristics that would resonate throughout the concert were apparent; ripely rich strings, powerful but controlled brass set the scene. Conductors seem to divide into those who need to emphasise the semiquaver ‘ta-dah’ in the opening fanfare and those who play it in tempo. Rouvali was emphatically in the former group – it’s an intervention that is not in the score and to my ear deprives the passage of energy and brilliance. Throughout the two works there were other occasions where Rouvali would make other agogic choices which the orchestra followed to perfection but which seemed to simply impede the musical flow. Another characteristic was a willingness to set generally slower tempi for the slower sections. Whether this was a response to the available weight and sustained power of the Philharmonia strings in particular I do not know, but it gave the opening sections of the work a certain langour that was sonically impressive if musically rather static. Rouvali chose some unusual – but interesting – musical lines within these complex scores to highlight and certainly another feature of the concert was that details emerged that are often inaudible. The acoustic of the Anvil is justly famous and certainly it served the music here well. The twelve-note fugue that Strauss wrote to represent Of Science and Learning was rather plainly presented but more surprising, if a little disappointing, was the very literal if not rather abrupt Dance Song. This is the section where, for all the philosophy of the original Nietzchian text, Strauss the composer serves up one of his most delicious waltzes featuring a perilous solo violin. Another superb and authoritative performance from leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, but I do wish that Rouvali had given him more freedom within what was a fairly brisk and unbending tempo for this section. Other performances find much more elegant and affectionate sophistication. From that point on the build to the climax of Song of the Night Wanderer was handled with skill and precision although the crowning ‘midnight bell’ was literally inaudible from my seat in the audience. The closing pages were again beautifully played with poise and control before a very loud sneeze in the last spellbound bars reminded everyone of the perils of live concerts! The conclusion was greeted warmly with cheers and sustained applause by the enthusiastic but disappointingly small audience (the hall was perhaps only 2/3 full?) with Rouvali called back to the podium several times.
If Also Sprach Zarathustra is a ‘big’ work then An Alpine Symphony is huge and as the excellent liner notes in the concert programme explained it is unparalleled in Strauss’s output, requiring an orchestra of around 140 players including twenty(!) horns – onstage and off – extended brass, quadruple woodwind, a large percussion section and an organ. For years the musical worth of the work was questioned but in more recent times it has been rehabilitated – certainly in the recording studio – with multiple versions available. It is one of those works that defies economic common sense. The sheer scale of the work and the personnel required means that few concert halls can cover the cost of staging it. In concert it remains relatively rare so quite aside from any eighteen months enforced absence from concert-going, this was an exciting prospect to hear again live. The qualities displayed in the first half of the programme were again evident. The contributions by principals of the orchestra were particularly notable from a meltingly expressive oboe in the pages before the climactic Vision to the fearlessly brilliant trumpet throughout and achingly lyrical horn in the closing Sunset. This really was top notch playing from first to last. Once more, Rouvali seemed to favour generally broader tempi in the slower sections. I did not time the work as a whole but certainly my impression was that this sat at the longer end of the range of performing lengths of this work. Not that there was ever a sense of excessive slowness – again due in no small part to the strings of the orchestra being able to sustain an intensity and weight of tone even at these testing tempi.
The use of some fifteen off-stage brass for barely two minutes of the work seems like an indulgent luxury but in concert it is always a highlight, as it was here. Limited space meant that these players were positioned in the side seating in the hall so the effect was next-room rather than the envisaged next-valley but it was predictably thrilling. One of the orchestral percussion gave his colleagues a rather envious look as they slipped out of the hall, their job done two minutes after starting! A special mention must be given too to the heavy brass – trombones and tubas. I liked a lot the perfect voicing of the group from the hushed emergence of the mountain in the morning mists to the imposing and always overwhelming grandeur of On the Summit. By the very nature of the work conductors will have few opportunities to perform the work in concert. In some ways I think this relative unfamiliarity served Rouvali better than in Also Sprach. The careful preparation and clarity of execution was again evident but ‘dressed up’ with less podium theatrics and musical interventions. The Thunder and Tempest, Descent is a truly virtuosic conception both compositionally and in terms of what it requires from the players. Strauss’s mountaineer hurries back down the mountain through the scenes visited during the ascent pursued by the most cacophonous musical storm ever written. Notable in this performance was how this did not become simply cacophony with instead the thematic material clearly presented and the extraordinary detail of the scoring brilliantly audible and faultlessly articulated. For me this does remain a passage in the work where compositional technique triumphs over content but this was as convincing a presentation of these scenes as I have ever heard. As previously mentioned, the following Sunset/Quiet Settles was ravishingly played and the work ended with the hushed whisperings of Night - thankfully free of any nasal accompaniment. As with the first half, the performance was greeted with enthusiastic, extended and very warm applause.
Although quite small in stature Rouvali clearly has a big musical presence and personality on the podium. He is following in big footsteps; Klemperer, Muti, Sinopoli, Dohnányi and Salonen. This was an auspicious debut and one that the audience at the Anvil clearly enjoyed a lot. So early in the relationship the orchestra plays attentively for Rouvali but time will tell whether they develop a sound and style that is synonymous with him in the way it undoubtedly did for the other conductors listed above. Certainly, Classical Music requires musicians of his energy and personality to reach out new audiences so this relationship bodes well.
An exciting, impressive and indeed rather moving return to live concerts.