Opera + Classical Music Reviews

No dallying: Rouvali conducts Brahms, Schumann and Sibelius

30 March 2023

Brisk is the word: Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall.


The Philharmonia Orchestra & Santtu-Matias Rouvali (Photo: Mark Allan)

One wonders whether Santtu-Matias Rouvali is one of those conductors who like to keep an orchestra on their toes by cranking up the tempo of a piece between rehearsal and performance. Thursday’s Philharmonia concert opened with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture taken at a sprightly pace that seemed to catch the orchestra (whose Principal Conductor Rouvali is) on a back foot, as there were places where the ensemble wasn’t always together, particularly in the transition into the early dolce section. The piece eventually settled into a decent account in which the contrasts of dynamic were nicely observed to highlight the appearance of the student drinking songs that Brahms cheekily used as the basis for his cocked snook at the stuffiness of the academic world into which he had (via an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau) been inducted.

Thursday’s Philharmonia concert… seemed to catch the orchestra…  on a back foot…”


Santtu-Matias Rouvali (Photo: Mark Allan)

Schumann’s Op. 86 Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra was next off the blocks, and, once again, Rouvali took the instructions for the first and third movements (‘lebhaft’ and ‘sehr lebhaft’) as a starting point for what turned out to be a very brisk performance indeed. The four horn players (Diego Incertis Sánchez – the Philharmonia’s Principal Horn – Laurence Davies, Jonathan Maloney and Carsten Williams) responded with panache to produce some excellent ensemble performances, and certainly brought out the excitement of Schumann’s overlapping lines, making one reflect on how thrilling this must have sounded to audiences in 1849 when a horn with valves, capable of playing all notes in the instrument’s range, was a bright new possibility. The central Romanze was certainly slower than the outer movements, and Rouvali allowed a little lingering on its lilting melodic material such that we were able to enjoy the lush harmonies that the orchestra has to offer in this section, rather than experience it as a solid foil for the quartet’s bravura. The lull was short lived, however, and we were soon back to a no-nonsense tempo for the final movement, towards the end of which the speed increased yet more, such that it was difficult to tell in the frenetic playing whether the spirited squeal from one of the horns was a deliberate rubato gesture or a cry for help. Certainly, it was a thrilling performance that garnered well-deserved applause, but one wants only so much wall of death in an evening that involves no motorcycles.

Rouvali’s approach to his countryman Sibelius’ fifth symphony was, perhaps, a little more measured. Typically ‘Sibelian’, it’s a work of constantly shifting moods, and while everyone looks forward to the burst of sunlight for the ‘swan theme’ in the final movement, we have to work with the composer in his mercurial slow build to this, allowing the spring-inspired nature of the symphony to thaw. Rouvali certainly got this, and the pastoral murmurings of the opening were allowed space for breath, with some finely judged dynamic control of the subsequent sweeping strings. In particular, the changes in tempo (and the light touches for the faster material) in the second movement were expertly controlled through Rouvali’s balletic gestures. The swan theme eventually emerged from some very busy buzzing indeed from the strings, and was adorned with a deal of spiccato from the double basses that was robust enough to produce percussive slaps from the fingerboards. This was certainly a performance of dramatic intent and execution, although one still felt a little breathless after its conclusion.

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