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Reviews

11 Dec 2018

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Sophie Bevan

Photo credit: Sussie Ahlburg

 

Over the years, the Philharmonia, an orchestra which has a particular affinity for the music of Strauss, has given some memorable concerts of this composer under Maazel, Sawallisch, Thielemann and Sinopoli - and Rouvali’s came very close to equalling them. The magnificent playing was one thing, but this young conductor’s ability to understand what makes Strauss’s music such an unforgettable experience in the concert hall made this an event and not just a concert.

Strauss is that rare thing in a composer in that even when he writes purely orchestral music the feeling that you’re listening to opera never wholly disappears. Some of his works do better reflect this than others, and some conductors are much better at negotiating the thickets of notes that can occlude Strauss’s orchestration. Some have argued (Manfred Honeck, for example), that even in the operas the true star isn’t the voice but the orchestra itself. The three works on this programme, however, were notable for the detailed solos that Strauss writes for individual instruments and Rouvali was careful to shape those solos. His style of conducting is quite open to this approach - the left hand is expressive, much as Abbado’s used to be, although I sometimes found his stick technique to be as vague as I did Sinopoli’s (this would become less obvious with Sinopoli later in his career). Rouvali’s sweeping right-hand can seem a little mannered but it was never less than clear that the Philharmonia Orchestra understood everything asked of them. And rarely have I seen any orchestra look at their conductor so intently as the Philharmonia did throughout this concert. Rouvali’s ear for detail is very fine - but I found myself sat on the wrong side of the orchestra to hear sufficient lucidity from the harps - a notable feature of Straussian orchestration that few conductors seem able to get right, especially in Eine Alpensinfonie, the work that ended this concert. Generally, however, there was a marvellous sense of clarity in the playing - even allowing for the uncommonly rich lower-strings, and resonant brass, not always a hallmark of this orchestra’s playing today.

The opening work, Artur Rodzinski’s orchestration of excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier is a strange piece. Completed in 1944, the very specific rubato of the work adheres reasonably closely to the opera’s Viennese roots - though when you listen to the suite you constantly long to hear the voices themselves. Rodzinski’s answer was to give the voices to the orchestra - so in Act II’s Silver Rose Scene the oboe represents Sophie, and the clarinet Octavian. The definition of the Philharmonia’s solo playing here was exquisite, even rather ravishing - much as you’d expect from this orchestra’s fabulous woodwind section. Ideally, a conductor should take this music at, or near, an identical tempo to the lyrics themselves - and Rouvali came close to doing so. The Act II waltzes were never less than interesting to hear, but didn’t come across as particularly Straussian - the playing was extraordinarily refined, the phrasing and opulence of tone so beautifully done that Rouvali somewhat forgot to conduct them in tempo. At times they just felt very slow, rather as if a Finnish winter had chilled the ballroom under a layer of ice. Rouvali found himself back in tempo with the trumpet solo (representing the consignment of the rose) just before the Trio between the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie. The expansiveness Rouvali brought to this music was not necessarily a problem (many conductors have done so) and he allowed the Philharmonia strings to soar. There was great intimacy here, but it was also emotionally driven. Rodzinski doesn’t use Strauss’s original ending to Rosenkavalier - instead supplanting it with another waltz, and then composing his own closing bars to end the suite on a dramatic, if bombastic, high note. It was undeniably exciting - if undeniably garish.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali High Res 4 - credit Kaapo Kamu (1).jpg Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Photo credit: Kaapo Kamu.

Strauss’s Vier Letze Lieder, sung by the British soprano Sophie Bevan, was one of the better performances I have heard of this work recently - even if her German sounded a little unconvincing. What this performance shared with a memorable one that Sinopoli gave with Jessye Norman at Salzburg in 1990 was expansiveness - though I think Rouvali got even finer playing from the Philharmonia on this occasion. In one sense, Bevan’s is not a huge voice - it’s quite the opposite - and she brought an unusual intimacy to most of the songs; but she faced a significant vocal challenge when Rouvali was so apt to linger over orchestral phrases. This was particularly the case in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, perhaps the most difficult of the four songs for any soprano. The long, huge phrases of this song can often trap sopranos into breaking the longer line - something that Bevan didn’t do. There was no suggestion she needed to take an unnecessary breath between the preceding phrase (though when she did, it felt entirely natural to do so), nor were there any notable problems accenting the words.

‘Beim Schlafengehen’ often feels like a treacherous vocal arc, culminating in a final stanza of such intensity and sheer beauty that many sopranos fall at the final hurdle. Its very last line ‘tief und tausendfach zu leben’ poses the problem of breath control like no other line in these songs: singers who attempt to take it in a single breath can’t sustain the length of the note on ‘leben’; Bevan didn’t try to do that, and instead floated a gloriously phrased final note that simply vanished into silence. Rouvali played dangerously with his tempo - but the overlapping violin solo was outstanding.

‘Im Abendrot’, too, had an epic feel to it at the opening, taking us back to the opening work on the programme, Der Rosenkavalier in how Rouvali used the orchestra to create an atmosphere that proved unusually gripping. This all felt just a little darker, a little bleaker, the resignation more palpable, the uncertainty in the violin and horn solos just a little tremulous. Bevan struck exactly the right tone - the voice as mysterious as it was able to embrace solitude and to convey that sense of finality that ends by asking the question: ‘ist dies etwa der Tod?’

Despite the difficulty of the final two songs of Vier Letze Lieder - both technically, and interpretatively - it’s often the first two songs I find sopranos are most ill at ease with in a concert performance. ‘Fruhling’, is slightly more exacting because it has such dramatic force. Almost minimally scored in comparison with the other three songs - using just a harp, horns, strings and woodwind - it exposes the singer rather early on. Bevan didn’t show insecurity in her phrasing - which was assured enough above the stave - but the brevity with which she ended her last note on ‘Gegenwart’ was a little unnerving. She was rather more poised and elegant in ‘September’, the voice stretching over the orchestra like a Gothic arch. If the autumnal darkness of this song sometimes eludes some singers, Bevan darkened her voice sufficiently enough that when she sang of ‘Golden tropft Blatt und Blatt’ you felt the colour in her voice was cinematographic.

Eine Alpensinfonie is a work which divides opinion: some find it to be bloated, others Strauss’s greatest orchestral achievement. I’m firmly in the latter group, and Rouvali’s performance was magnificent. He takes a relatively spacious view of this work - it clocked in at exactly 55 minutes - but the dramatic intensity of this interpretation, the epic scale of it, the fluidity of the pacing and the loftiness of the vision were often extraordinary. That is not to say, however, that Rouvali didn’t court danger because he sometimes did. Some of his tempos were dangerously slow, others almost brought this particular mountain crashing down around him. It was rarely, if ever, a case of orchestral ensemble being shaky - the Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing was superb - rather a question of the orchestra going one way, and the conductor quite another. This made for an exhilarating ascent, and a performance that will long stay in the memory.

There were advantages to being sat on the same side of the Philharmonia’s cellos, basses, trombones and lower brass when Rouvali was so intent on cultivating the deeply expressive sound he achieved here. This was the kind of broodingly stormy mountain climb that was enveloped in dark clouds before we ever got to the summit with its thunder and tempest. On the other hand, Strauss writes so evocatively for the harps that Rouvali wasn’t able to always make them audible - especially during the climax of ‘Auf dem Gipfel’ (in my experience, only Sinopoli has ever achieved this in concert). ‘Gefahrvolle Augenblicke’ was exceptionally well done, and highly dramatic, but the sense that orchestra and conductor weren’t entirely in step with one another was palpable. I’m not sure wind machines during the storm itself had much impact (though the timpani were just thrilling). Often the performance was at its best during the sublime ‘Nacht’ sections that bookend the opening and closing of this vast work - the trombone playing was stunning, Rouvali’s ability to control the low, mysterious dynamics was magical. The weft of orchestral interweaving brought great clarity to a work that isn’t always played in such a way. It was all rather special.

There is a clear chemistry between this young conductor and the Philharmonia - something of a rarity today. And this concert was a rarity, too - a Strauss concert which was memorable.

Marc Bridle

Sophie Bevan (soprano), Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London; 6th December 2018.

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