Large scale Strauss launches the Santtu-Matias Rouvali era with the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss: Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.9.2021. (MB)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali (Philharmonia’s sixth Principal Conductor) © Mark Allan

R. Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra Op.30; Eine Alpensinfonie Op.64

It had been quite a while since I had heard an orchestra of the size of the Philharmonia assembled for this Alpine Symphony; not that the Zarathustra band was small either. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s farewell to the Philharmonia had necessarily involved a smaller orchestra. His successor Santtu-Matias Rouvali picked up the reins in very different style and repertoire. The scale, not only size but ‘depth’ in all its manifestations, of an orchestra in Richard Strauss or Wagner was something I had found myself longing for on several occasions during lockdown. Now, at last, it was here, and if this double helping of Nietzschean Strauss was not on the face of it ideal programming, there were revelations to be had from hearing these two tone poems side by side.

Whatever its renown, Also sprach Zarathustra does not pop up in concert programmes that often. I think this may actually have been the first time I heard it live. Its renown is, any of course, limited largely to its opening, especially in combination with a certain film. It is what it is. I am not sure it lends itself especially to interpretation, but orchestra and conductor projected it with strength, if not entirely without fallibility in the difficult Royal Festival Hall acoustic. It was wonderful to hear the hall’s organ again too, here and later played by Richard Pearce. But then what? The darkness that follows immediately and attempts to emerge therefrom are perhaps more interesting, or at least more interpretable. The richness of the Philharmonia’s solo strings, gradually joined by more, was something to savour. Points of detail told throughout. What I missed in Rouvali’s reading was a greater sense of the whole: admittedly difficult to achieve in this work. His soundworld and the orchestra’s seemed more Wagnerian, even Brahmsian, than modernist. That said, the fugue’s beginning offered a hint of Bartók: unexpected yet welcome. Salutary reminders issued that much of what we think of as the world of Die Frau ohne Schatten or even Der Rosenkavalier is here already. Harmonies began to acquire a more sinister edge. If not exactly flat-footed, waltzing was only intermittently able to suggest something lighter, fleeter. Rouvali ultimately seemed excitable in the mode of a Solti, albeit without the precision, than comprehending as, say, a Haitink. Either way, the performance never really caught fire. These, however, are early days; this remained a welcome and surprisingly rare opportunity to hear the work.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra © Mark Allan

The sepulchral, frankly Wagnerian opening of Eine Alpensinfonie sounded more idiomatic. Much teemed under the surface, though what was it? Posing that question cut to the heart, as it were, of Strauss’s materialism. Rouvali was certainly more flexible in transition and transformation. Perhaps surprisingly, this performance seemed less episodic, if without quite the symphonic achievement of conductors from Mravinsky to Haitink. And of course it was a treat simply to hear the Philharmonia in this music, massed horns — oddly, from a balcony, rather than offstage — included. The waterfall was a glistening orchestral delight, crucially paving the way for all manner of further phantasmagorical hallucinations — or realities. Despite himself, despite Nietzsche too, Strauss the ‘Antichrist’—so much pointless debate would have been averted had he used that title instead—could not resist hints and more of metaphysical meaning. Dissonances ground as we made our way to the summit, and the music as well as the orchestra unleashed at the top spoke of something we had all been waiting for. The uncertainties and sadness of descent proved powerfully moving, heard through a storm built on harmony and counterpoint as much as colour. Rouvali paced the performance well, an Epilogue neither rushed nor milked a case in point. There was Straussian integrity here that extended beyond the ‘merely musical’ to the human. As Night once more fell, one sensed a sleep that extended beyond closing one’s eyes.

Mark Berry

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