Ravel and Sibelius were both danced into life by an irrepressible pirouetting Finn whose unstoppable energy brought characterful and mostly cohesive performances. If at times things were pulled out of shape the Philharmonia Orchestra was superbly responsive to Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s individual approach to form and content.
This did not always bring ideal results as outlined in Ravel’s La valse. It started promisingly, with almost off-the-radar pianissimo, before gurgling woodwinds and swirls of harp teased it into life. But for all its phantasmagorical whirling (shrieking piccolo and swaggering brass encouraged by Rouvali’s baton-flicks) its cumulative energy built too soon. Brakes applied for its orgiastic climax were never released and the final furlong, which could have been precipitous, was robbed of seat-of-pants excitement.
It was brilliance of musicianship rather than excitement that characterised Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto with Alice Sara Ott as a glittering soloist who sprinkled stardust over its toccata-like passages and jazzy rhythms. She can caress phrases too and her smallish tone is well-suited to a Concerto where heft is not a priority. A reduced Philharmonia provided playful and sultry support, a becalming harp bringing temporary relief from the circus atmosphere. The Adagio assai allowed Ott’s lingering phrases to register fully, tiny pauses drawing you deep into Mozartean purity, the whole gaining much from outstanding woodwind contributions of surpassing beauty not least Jill Crowther’s cor anglais. After too long a pause, Rouvali launched a sparkling Finale, its champagne-flowing manner with cackling clarinet (as if Mark van de Wiel was on day-release from the local lunatic asylum) nicely caught, fun to the fore. The emotional temperature cooled for Chopin’s E-flat Nocturne, Opus 9/2, served as a somewhat perfunctory encore.
The temperature soared for a theatrical account of Sibelius’s Valse triste, its mixture of melancholic dreaming and startling reality underlined by exaggerated tempo changes, bipolar treatment beautifully executed. So too his First Symphony, a distinctive reading that placed elemental weight and dramatic effect over architectural sweep. A desolate clarinet and ominous timpani set in motion a first movement of wintry grandeur, punctuated by razor-sharp accents, forbidding and glacial, Rouvali bringing visceral engagement if a tendency to withhold impetus. There was no lack of light and shade, nor too in the well-paced Andante, tenderness and turbulence keenly expressed and shaped into a satisfying whole. The Scherzo was light on its feet, woodwinds again claiming attention and yet, like La valse, a little loud too soon. The Finale was a shape-shifting affair, its drama building fitfully yet powerfully towards its compelling moment of release given out by tensile strings. Dramatic, idiosyncratic, this interpretation confirms Rouvali as an ardent Sibelian.