Rouvali becomes the Hero in a provocative Ein Heldenleben with the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and R. Strauss: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.6.2023. (MBr)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducting the Philharmonia © Sisi Burn

Beethoven – Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano
R. Strauss – Ein Heldenleben

When it comes to Richard Strauss, the Philhamonia Orchestra has either been blessed or doomed by some of the great conductors who have performed the major tone poems in concerts with them. One of the most notable was in their final concert with Lorin Maazel who, just weeks before his death, gave a performance of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie for the record books; magnificent it may have been, but it divided critics and Straussians. Ein Heldenleben, which rarely works at the extreme tempo Maazel applied to Eine Alpensinfonie, did manage to coax Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Philharmonia into riskier ground – at the BBC Proms in 1990 – but until this performance with Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the orchestra I had never actually sat through one that almost touched an hour in length. If the subsequent recording (microphones were in place) confirms my own rough timing this Ein Heldenleben was just short of fifty-five minutes.

There is a fascination with the in extremis in music that keeps us hooked, although sometimes it has us trying desperately to swim against everything we are hearing. Armed with my pen I could have doodled away; instead I wrote just a single line in my program booklet: ‘Has Santtu lost his way in Strauss’? Rouvali’s grasp of this composer is, in fact, very much to my taste; I also think he is a naturally gifted Straussian – and this is not something one should take for granted among today’s conductors. Everything about his Strauss suggests Rouvali is not a young man in a hurry; but go to any Rouvali concert and most of what he conducts isn’t rushed. This Ein Heldenleben, however, made me ask another question which hasn’t quite arisen before in his concerts: what exactly is Rouvali striving for?

As with another epic Ein Heldenleben, Sergiu Celibidache’s last performance of the work given with the Munich Philharmonic in March 1983, things began to unravel in Des Helden Gefährtin, generally the longest of the six – although Strauss was vague about sectionalising the work at all. Rouvali’s felt every bit as long as the sixteen minutes Celibidache took – but he could well have taken considerably less than that; Rouvali is not gifted with the ability to make music seem timeless as Celibidache, Leonard Bernstein or Carlos Kleiber were. There were three things going on here and not all of them were in unison; Rouvali’s slackness made the music simply sound interminable – tempi were so relaxed that it often felt directionless, and orchestral entries between the violin solo seemed patched in rather than spontaneous. On the other hand, the sheer voluptuousness of the Philharmonia’s playing, especially in the love music, was extraordinary. Rouvali used his space well to lavish glorious plangency from the solo clarinet, oboe and flute – but above all from the burnished glow of the strings. But it was the violin solo, in those majestic cadenzas, of Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay which was most compelling; I haven’t heard a better account of Strauss’s Pauline for many years. Unblemished technically, he just focused on a searing portrait that was immense in characterisation. Flawless in his handling of the multiple arpeggios, treble-stopping, broken chords, rapid scales and two-part inventions there were lashings of wit, coquettishness, wryness, and strokes of femininity to the tonal colour.

Des Helden Gefährtin was the first real point in the performance at which I thought what kind of Straussian Heldenleben Rouvali was striving for; one based on this conductor’s vision of sound, and what I think he could push this orchestra to do for him. If the ten double-basses were a suggestion of the depth of tone he wanted from the strings then he largely achieved this – although he missed it on the opening of Das Held which felt less dramatic than it might have. Rouvali appeared to have decided on nine horn players – against the standard eight: seven trumpets, against the standard five. Indeed, in most sections Rouvali’s instrumentation was larger than the score requests.

Fundamentally, there would be nothing wrong with Rouvali’s Ein Heldenleben as a showcase for this orchestra at its collective peak. As a project in sound it emerged with superb clarity of purpose. If all the imposing grandeur had been hurled out in Der Held, then in Des Helden Widersacher the spitefulness and bitterness had been caricatured magnificently by the Philharmonia’s woodwind with bitingly articulated playing. Der Helden Walstatt shared much with both how Celibidache and Sinopoli took this particular passage in the work – less a forensic march, more a devastating battle to the death where literally everything before you was mercilessly crushed. The weight Rouvali applied here was enormous – more akin to Shostakovich’s Leningrad, rather than looking forward to Strauss’s own Elektra. This was a more graphic battle than usual – pizzicati literally exploded off the stage like incendiary bombs, and woodwind were aimed like spears. Taken at the slower tempo Rouvali chose, this was a battle that was more brutish, more elemental, more powerful – but lacking nothing in orchestral refinement in doing that.

With the hero ascendant, Ein Heldenleben reaches its greatest point at the majestic climax – that fusion of the Don Juan and Zarathustra quotes which Strauss so beautifully intertwines into some of the most sweeping music he ever wrote. It reaches its summit at the Im zeitmas marking in the score, and it was a mark of just how expansive Rouvali’s performance had been that it took him almost forty minutes to get there (it took Sinopoli thirty-four minutes in 1990). But that extra time had so many compensations; the tremendous amount of detail Rouvali put into getting there was ear-catching. The string phrasing alone was superb, the magnificent peal on the horns, and the careful balance of the harps from within the orchestra. Des Weltflucht und Vollendung would be just as strikingly done. Rouvali gave us a breathtaking coda to the work – it was built up like a vast orchestral pyramid, with glowing orchestral textures leading up towards its final apex. Superb horns, ending in Diego Incertis Sánchez’s high E-flat, and, on the solo violin, Visontay’s low E-flat. Both gloriously, peerlessly, played. Could there possibly be a bone of contention here after such incandescence? Rouvali having his Maris Jansons moment, perhaps, and throwing in an unmarked second timpani stroke. Not Straussian, but very Rouvali.

In extremis this Ein Heldenleben had certainly been. If at times it seemed to flag, if it tested the very limits of endurance, it was a provocative interpretation that doesn’t easily compare with others I have heard in concert in recent years. Rouvali is an uncompromising Straussian – ironically the very kind of one which this orchestra once disliked so much. There are things about Rouvali’s Strauss which are significantly more unsound or musically wrong than they ever were with Sinopoli’s vision of this composer; on the other hand, Rouvali shares with Sinopoli that obsession for sound and detail and this particular performance of Ein Heldenleben was rich with both to an unusual degree. And given the individuality and highly personal stamp on this performance I am tempted to say that the Hero of this Ein Heldenleben wasn’t Strauss but Rouvali himself.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducting Beethoven’s Triple Concerto © Robert Piwko

The opening work for this concert was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Played by three superstar British soloists – Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Benjamin Grosvenor – this was inspired casting. The Triple Concerto doesn’t always work with three equally great players – the piano part, in particular, can be a bit uninspired in places, for example, whereas the cello soloist can often seem to be the dominant force. Here the chemistry was perfect, the three soloists perhaps more joyfully aligned as a proper piano trio.

What was notable about this performance was how free it was, how almost improvisatory it became. The Philharmonia had begun with the most portentous of openings on rich, deep cellos and violins – but nothing like this would ever be replicated in either Kanneh-Mason’s or Benedetti’s playing at all. Both eschewed any kind of darkness of tone, opting instead for brighter, less weightier colours. Grosvenor, too, was fleeter, his pedalling more carefree.

The piece isn’t as heavily virtuosic as Beethoven’s other concertos – the piano part notably so. But the cello part is gloriously written and Kanneh-Mason was quicksilvered and beguiling in the capricious triplets and scales. When playing with Benedetti in the short, but rich, Largo they established a compelling synthesis. If the long opening movement had taken all three soloists to moments of passion and levels of inward self-reflection, then during the Rondo there was a brilliant playfulness on display from all three of them. The Triple Concerto dates from around the same time as the Eroica – if there are minor themes of heroism on display in the work, it was a testament to the joyfulness of the performance that it remained a distinctly anti-heroic, entirely humane one.

The encore was an eloquently played arrangement of ‘Danny Boy’ for trio.

Marc Bridle

Leave a Comment