Thursday, September 30, 2021

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall, London

March 20, 2014: Lorin Maazel, in one of his final London concerts, conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and Also sprach Zarathustra:

September 30, 2021: Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia in the same two works…

Starting with Zarathustra (Maazel did Alpine first), Rouvali, in his first concert as the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor, opted for a momentous ‘Sunrise’ (Kubrick/2001) with majestic brass and Thor-like timpani strokes to herald a sumptuous and vivid account of this Nietzsche-inspired tone poem, well-controlled over a fairly spacious timeframe (thirty-five minutes), without sacrificing volatility and thrilling tilts forward, or depth of utterance, such as during ‘Of science’. If the Viennese dance-song episode was on the studied side, and there was a tendency to over-project particulars, and garishly, there was no doubting the build to the ‘Midnight Bell’ climax was stirring, although greater definition of the named instrument was needed. Ironic given the highlighting of detail elsewhere.

The average playing-time for Alpine Symphony (scored for a particularly large orchestra) is around fifty minutes. Some conductors – Metzmacher, Pappano, Solti, for examples – shave off several minutes, whereas others add a few (Mravinsky). Maazel, with the Philharmonia in 2014, took an unprecedented sixty-seven, not that it was a second too long or seemed anything like that length. Rouvali took around fifty-five and the work could drag.

From the Finnish maestro, the promise of the opening dawn wasn’t always maintained, some tempos were a little precipitous, and the extra brass didn’t come across as being especially offstage; however, violins had an attractive sheen and, for the most part, there was a sense of journeying, of exploring (flora, fauna, danger; although this music is about more than climbing and descending a mountain; Semyon Bychkov has it down as a birth-to-death piece), and the arrival at the summit was triumphant, the view awesome: Nature’s mystery. Coming down, a storm rages – chillingly prepared for, then elemental under Rouvali’s no-doubt balletic baton – followed by voluptuous reminiscing, lingered-over fairly effectively, and finally the overlong goodnight coda, Strauss’s miscalculation, something not contradicted by Rouvali. Overall this was a performance of individuality, if not infallible and a little coarse, and I suspect opinion-dividing. I wasn’t totally persuaded.