tue 23/07/2024

Philharmonia, Rouvali, RFH review - the really big orchestra is back for cosmic Strauss | reviews, news & interviews

Philharmonia, Rouvali, RFH review - the really big orchestra is back for cosmic Strauss

Philharmonia, Rouvali, RFH review - the really big orchestra is back for cosmic Strauss

Who'd have thought it? Two enormous scores in one dazzling concert

Jumping for joy: Santtu-Mattias and members of the Philharmonia Orchestra relish StraussAll images by Robert Allan

Two suns, two moons, two Philharmonia leaders sharing a front desk, two aspirational giants among Richard Strauss's symphonic poems bringing the number of players, in the second half, to 134.

Who’d have thought we’d be witnessing such phenomena when, contrary to what the orchestra’s CEO claimed at the start and the unmasked half of a packed audience seemed to think, we haven’t even reached the “post-Covid era”.

Never mind the long-term implications; by the time we reached the huge arc of Strauss’s one-movement Alpine Symphony, everyone in the audience must surely have been feeling the physical and emotional sensation of that mass sound, and wondering at what a remarkable thing a full symphony orchestra is. Not to be taken for granted, and in any case no chance of that with the formidable control of Santtu-Matias Rouvali, launching his first season as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor in what he does best – the big late-romantic scores. Philharmonia and Rouvali in StraussI doubt if these two have ever shared a concert before. Also sprach Zarathustra fulfilled its reputation as a feat of phenomenal orchestration, one which turned the young Bartók, among others, to composing. The sounds were the thing in the early stages; Rouvali’s realm seemed to be purely orchestral abstraction, given a certain reluctance to make the instruments truly sing. But then came the Dance Song of Nietzsche’s Übermensch or Superman, transcending earthbound progress with a supercharged Viennese waltz. Its main role has always been advertised as a major violin solo for the leader, but here we had two, the genial-brilliant Benjamin Marquise Gilmore whooping it up while the official “concert master” for the night, Zsolt-Tihamér Vistontay, with whom he usually alternates in concerts, held the tiller with perfect tuning and esprit (the two pictured below).

This dazzling display of a semi-double-violin concerto seemed to ignite the rest of the strings, and from the point at which they all join the dance through to the exquisite nocturne with its unresolved question at the end of the work, the performance shone with that special incandescence Rouvali seems uniquely able to get from his orchestra.Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay and Benjamin Marquise Gilmore in StraussHis spacious steering of Strauss’s large paragraphs gave us an Alpine Symphony of unique brilliance, the deeper performance partly due to the work, partly perhaps because Rouvali had already conducted it with the Philharmonia in concert, back in 2018. Occasionally over-loved – as he advances in years, the still-young Finn will probably realise that he doesn’t need to guide every phrase, every orchestral solo, however masterfully – it was still riveting from the first darkness-to-light sequence onwards, and deeply sad at the end, when the mountaineer’s theme dies into the night (Strauss completed the work in the thick of the First World War – it’s hard not to see this as a kind of requiem for Alp-climbing youths slaughtered in their thousands – and the sobering conclusion resonates especially with us as ecological disaster looms ever larger).

Rouvali in StraussIt seemed a show-offy step too far to have the extra horn-led chorus, usually backstage as if carolling from another mountain valley, actually in the hall (earlier they did what they could to make an impression in the buzzing Festival Hall foyers with John Luther Adams’s Across the Distance - spatial effects in any case not really possible given the way the publlic areas are laid out). Later on there were some forgivable signs of the players reaching the limits of their endurance in some too-eary entries. But the human muscle of the mountaineers’ ascent and the unfolding songfulness which follows, making this so much more than just a programmatic indulgence, were peerlessly vivid..And I've never heard so much through the often thick textures of the muted trombones; getting lost in "thickets and undergrowth" has never sounded so much fun.

In the many big climaxes you felt the full force of the glorious Philharmonia sound going straight through the body and piercing the soul; something we'd almost forgotten in the last 18 months, and there’s nothing like it. But the chamber musical refinement of so many passages in both symphonic poems was wondrous too. So, splendid signs for Rouvali’s regency, and an apt start for what they've called the "Human/Nature" season, though we wait to see if he’ll programme with the same ambition as his predecessor Esa-Pekka Salonen, or as his opposite numbers, Rattle at the LSO, Gardner at the LPO and Oramo at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, are already doing. But in terms of living masterfully in the moment, there’s already nothing like the Philharmonia/Rouvali partnership. And please, Southbank Centre, at least try to make your audiences aware of mask-wearing guidelines, or the season may come to an abrupt halt.


I wholeheartedly agree with this review. I've heard many live performances of Zarathustra and the Alpine but none quite as vivid as these. A triumphant start to the Philharmonia/Rouvali partnership.

Perhaps not so surprisingly given his credentials as a Strauss interpreter, Lorin Maazel conducted both works with the Philharmonia a few years ago at the RFH though the order was reversed ie Zarathustra last.

Ah. By that stage I think Maazel was to be avoided, so that's probably why I missed it. Frankly anyone with credentials as a Strauss conductor might avoid pairing these two, but given our release from Covid restrictions on numbers, this was a special case.

In the rehearsal Vistontay played the Viennese waltz solo and Santtu appeared to ask him if he could give even more pazazz to the whoop. Gilmore offered to bolster it and even joked they should leap from their chairs for emphasis. In the concert they whooped in tandem but remained on their chairs.

Interesting, but at the risk of sounding pedantic the early whoops (glissandi) are written for the second player on the front desk. So it really is a double concerto as Strauss wrote it. Whether BMG doubled up on anything is another matter.

I also attended this concert. The fact is, playing both these huge scores together makes for a very over-indulgent evening that does risk wearying one's ears. Although the joy of the evening came across, I left feeling over-fed. In passing, I thought the first part of Also Sprach was sluggish - as the reviewer suggests above. The performance only came to life in the second part. And the Alpine Symphony, glorious though it is (and I liked the 18 horns!), could arguably be a better work with 10 minutes edited out - I wait for lightning to strike me. I also saw Beholavek doing it in 2010 at the Barbican, along with Rouvali in 2018 and Jurowski 2019 at the Festival Hall. I'm not sure this latest performance was of 'unique' brilliance as the reviewer suggests, as all four performances, to my memory, were splendid.

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