History was made last night by a London orchestra….News
…And not a single newspaper has reported it this morning. (UPDATE: The Guardian had a review after noon.)
Slippedidsc.com publishes its exclusive first review of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s season opener by ex-NY Times critic Alastair Macaulay, the first of several reviews that he will write for us this season.
Read this. Reflect on what you missed. One last chance to catch it tonight:
The Philharmonia Orchestra/Santtu-Matias Rouvali – Human/Nature: Music for a Precious Planet series
by Alastair Macaulay
Thursday’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall was historic in more ways than one. The Philharmonia Orchestra, long resident in the hall, was back in action there for the first time since March 2020. Santtu-Matias Rouvali was giving his first concert as the orchestra’s sixth principal conductor. The concert also opened the Philharmonia’s timely new series, “Human/Nature: Music for a Precious Planet.”
These aspects of history will fall into place in due course. The performance was absorbingly sensuous, a riveting meeting of conductor and music. Both works – Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) and An Alpine Symphony (1915) – were by Richard Strauss, a composer whose music constantly calls for reappraisal. He can easily dwindle into an ultimate example of a “Too many notes” composer and a decadent late-Romantic artist. On this occasion, by contrast, his largeness of spirit afforded an ideal launch to the “Human/Nature” series. Here was Strauss as philosopher, as alchemist, as master-musician.
After the opening Zarathustra, my companion at once singled out Rouvali’s quality of “precise flamboyance”: just the right oxymoron for this 35-year-old conductor. He seems Puckish (energetic presence, twinkling eyes, hair with bunches of curls, marvellous gestures) until you realise the very considerable artistry he deploys. Wave-like impulses pass from his back from shoulder to fingertips; I’ve seldom noticed so fluent a connection between upper and lower halves of a conductor’s arms. Every section of his hands – fingers, palms, wrists – can play a separate part. Yet all this, like the turns of his head and focus of his eyes, is objectively deployed: he’s married to his music without apparent ego.
He grasps all the most elusive aspects of Strauss. The seemingly ornamental details all belong to the overall architecture. The long stretches where rhythm seems a merely incidental device nonetheless have a steady inner pulse. Basic elements of sound are continually contrasted. Throughout each piece, the music is in continual transition. (Strauss called a later work Metamorphosen, but that title could fit these scores too.)
Strauss composed each score with a programmatic framework, in part inspired by his reading of Nietzsche. (It’s fun to speculate whether Nietzsche would have approved. He complained at the lack of dance quality in Wagner’s music: it’s unlikely he would have found more of it in these two Strauss scores.) But Rouvali’s conducting keeps revealing the ambiguity essential to the music. Even when the music is at its most literally picturesque (the waltzing “Dance Song” in Zarathustra, the cowbells and wind machine of the Alpine Symphony), it’s also highly metaphysical. Evocative details pass; suddenly we’re confronted with adventures of the soul.
Zarathustra opens with surely what has become the most famous passage Strauss ever wrote: the cosmic fanfare that Stanley Kubrick used in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It perfectly introduces the quality of exaltation that Strauss evokes, and yet it’s remarkable how often he also departs from it. Another fanfare, for example, is altogether sweeter, indeed sugar-coated. Between grandly post-Wagnerian ensembles occur delicately buoyant sequences for solo instruments.
The rapport between Rouvali, always alert and suspenseful, and the Philharmonia is gorgeous. The bright sheen of the violins, the dark edges of the double-basses, the firm declarations of the brass, the piercing entries of oboe and flute were all here vivid elements of the larger tapestry.
An Alpine Symphony, a more rarely heard score and a giant one (133 musicians), here abounded in yet greater epiphanies and contrasts. Lone violins became both exquisite and poignant; cascading torrents of gleaming sound were ecstatic; a fragmented melody for solo oboe over high trembling strings became beautifully troubling. Violence is offset by calm. Visions of the natural world melt imperceptibly into explorations of the psyche. Rouvali and the Philharmonia fluently rose together to every twist in the journey.
Tonight (Friday 1 October), they repeat this programme in Basingstoke. On Sunday 3, they switch to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (just two years before the Alpine Symphony in date but in a different spiritual universe) and Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto (a world premiere). To follow this musical volte-face will be one of the fascinations of London’s autumn season.
Photo: (c) Laura Luostarinen
UPDATE: The complete concert will be available to stream from 14 October here.