Sadness, joy and defiance: Rouvali, Radulović and the Philharmonia at the top of their game

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Beethoven: Nemanja Radulović (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.1.2023. (CSa)

Nemanja Radulović © Sever Zolak

Shostakovich – Suite for Variety Orchestra
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto in G minor
Beethoven – Symphony No.2 in D major

It has been almost eighteen months since Santtu-Matias Rouvali took the reins from fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia. The transition appears seamless, since Rouvali has evidently forged a close partnership with the orchestra, and there is much about his masterful musicianship and graceful physicality in common with his predecessor. Small in stature, his head crowned with a thatch of golden curls, Rouvali looks considerably younger than his 37 years. His expressive arms, delicate hand gestures, wand-like waves of his baton and a tendency to dance and rock to the music never distract. Rather, they infuse his performances with an almost balletic grace and make them fascinating to watch. A conductor both literally and figuratively, the music courses through Rouvali’s body like an electrical charge.

The Philharmonia’s imaginative coupling of Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2 in the first half, and Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 in the second half, was connected by common themes: sadness, defiance and optimism in the face of personal adversity.

Although compiled by friends of Shostakovich in the 1950s, the suite comprises film scores, ballet and piano music written by him in the late 1920s and 1930s, when he laboured under the yoke of Stalin’s repressive policy of Socialist Realism. Jolly, melancholy and wistful in turns, this bittersweet collection of eight movements, colourfully scored to include saxophones, cymbals, glockenspiel and vibraphone, and crisply played by the Philharmonia, contains a strident march, some catchy dance tunes, a polka and some light-hearted waltzes. Viewed through the dark lens of state censorship operating at the time, Rouvali tapped the work’s mordant satire lurking darkly beneath the surface.

Prokofiev’s concerto was composed in 1935, after he was preparing to return from Europe to Russia and to an uncertain future. The work’s ravishing and readily accessible melodies – a nod to the ‘Soviet Realism’ referred to above – were doubtless designed to appease the authorities. They would not have recognised the composition’s underlying anxiety, a quality tapped by the intuitive soloist, Serbian-French violinist Nemanja Radulović. Bearded and with a lion’s mane of long black hair topped by a man bun and dressed in flared black culottes and Doc Martin platform boots, Radulović, in a break with the sartorial convention of the concert hall platform, resembled a young, wild rock star. By contrast, his performance was marked by rigorous self-discipline, perceptiveness, and dedicated exclusively to the musical integrity of the work.

The opening violin solo of the Allegro Moderato – a plaintive and unsettling introduction – followed by a sensual, dancing conversation between violin and orchestra, was played with the utmost sensitivity. In the second movement, marked Andante assai, Radulović skilfully conjured up the delicate soundworld of Romeo and Juliet, the ballet which Prokofiev completed three years later, in 1938, while the terrifying dance in the third movement Allegro, ben marcato was controlled by a masterful technique. For those who had come to the Royal Festival Hall expecting and perhaps hoping for something a little more dangerous, the young Serb did not disappoint. The encore, Radulović’s now famous account of Paganini’s Caprice No.24 in A minor, was quite simply dazzling – a dizzying display of virtuosic brilliance which brought an ecstatic audience to its feet.

Even Beethoven’s Second Symphony, a work of undeniable genius which occupied the second half of the concert, could have been something of an anti-climax. The deft precision of the orchestra under Rouvali’s skilful baton ensured that it was anything but. Andrew Mellor, in his programme note, points out that at the time the work was written, Beethoven’s impending deafness had driven him to despair and suicidal thoughts. Yet the first movement, a tense Adagio followed by a spirited Allegro, pulsated with joy, imbued by the vitality of the string section. The second movement, a poignant hymn-like Larghetto, was tenderly played, while the playful Scherzo and the ebullient, ecstatic finale concluded an excellent performance by an ensemble at the top of its game.

Chris Sallon

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