sat 15/12/2018

Sophie Bevan, Philharmonia, Rouvali, RFH review - an Alpine blaze | reviews, news & interviews

Sophie Bevan, Philharmonia, Rouvali, RFH review - an Alpine blaze

Sophie Bevan, Philharmonia, Rouvali, RFH review - an Alpine blaze

Generously flawed at first, the young Finn's conducting hit ever greater heights in Strauss

Santtu-Matias Rouvali: a galvanising force for the PhilharmoniaKaapo Kamu

With eyes swivelled towards who'll take over from Esa-Pekka Salonen as the Philharmonia's Principal Conductor in 2021, two of the strongest possibilities are to be found within the orchestra's masthead of associates. Another Finn, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, currently a great choice as the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra's trailblazer, and that best of Czechs Jakub Hrůša, chief in Bamberg, are already serving up electrifying events unsurpassed on the London concert scene, and Rouvali's all-Richard Strauss programme last night was the real deal. Eventually.

It started with quite some wilful pulling-about, though, perhaps an oddball Finnish view of Viennese sensuality in the suite from Der Rosenkavalier. You do wonder what any conductor worth his or her salt is doing with this 1944 selection by conductor Artur Rodzinski, anyway: the music minus four - the voices of the Marschallin, Octavian, Sophie and Baron Ochs - in the opera's purple passages is always frustrating. The Trio that isn't, however, was Rouvali's finest moment here, beautifully voiced and paced in the orchestra, followed by the romp of the lecherous Baron's final come-uppance and a riotous Rodzinski coda which is actually quite in the spirit of the piece. The Prelude couldn't have been less supple and parodistically agile as young buck Octavian takes his hasty pleasure with the experienced Marschallin. Way too many stop-starts here, and the famous waltz, in the true style of Strauss's namesakes - actually Josef's Dynamiden, not anything by Johanns I or II - needs a stylistic hesitation on the upbeat, but not as protracted as this.

Sophie BevanWould Rouvali's penchant for the slow burn hamper Sophie Bevan (pictured right by Sussie Ahlburg), wonderful exponent of her namesake's role in Der Rosenkavalier, in the Four Last Songs? Not a bit; she was totally in control of the long phrases, with all the necessary bloom at the top of every arch, even if the middle range isn't quite flecked with gold, and collegial sensitivity to her orchestral colleagues. The rapport with guest leader Benjamin Gilmore in the third song, "Beim Schlafengehen", soared with a newly charged emotion that didn't let us go until the final setting of the sun in the Eichendorff setting that's always placed last these days in the sequence.

That grave, quiet curtain so beautifully stage-managed by the octogenarian Strauss affirmed Rouvali as a master of profound patience, a quality that raised the vast trajectory of Strauss's 24 hours up and down a mountain, Eine Alpensinfonie, to the very highest level. In the confines of the Festival Hall, the often thick scoring can make it sound like an angry rice pudding, but from the first sounding of the mountain profile by the Philharmonia's magnificent low brass, we could be sure that the colours were all under very precise control. It was good to hear the consummate piccolo artistry of Keith Bragg capitalising on his department's transfigured larks in the Four Last Songs, flecking the waterfall and piping in the Alpine meadow in only two of countless details I've never heard register so vividly before. First trumpet Alistair Mackie never lost focus for a second in his fiendishly high role throughout.

But it was in Rouvali's special urging of the strings that this became a spectacularly great performance. I've seen the urgency translate into ever more burning sound once before, from the CBSO under Andris Nelsons in a much more open acoustic, and at exactly the same point in the work, the mountain peak: this kind of electricity doesn't come along often in concert-hall music-making. For that especially, and for the infinite poignancy of the final return to darkest night, where the mountaineers' theme dies on the violin - not too fancifully, I've always heard it as a requiem for the nature-loving youth of Europe fallen in the First World War, during which the work was completed - this has to get the full five stars.

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