This was Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s first Philharmonia Orchestra concert since he was announced as its next Principal Conductor – from the 2021-22 season in succession to Finnish compatriot Esa-Pekka Salonen. The front cover of the programme proclaimed SANTTU in large capitals below a smiling image of him, introducing him proudly and familiarly in a style befitting his markedly unstuffy personality. For some time now – and what a credit to his country’s training – Finland has delivered many musicians of the highest quality, in numbers out of all proportion to its population of six million.
From the opening of John Adams’s The Chairman Dances – derived from his opera Nixon in China – it was immediately clear that the Philharmonia Orchestra was in stunning form. Rouvali tempered the intrinsically repetitive nature of the music by finely varying dynamic levels and tempos with equal subtlety.
The soloist in Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto was another Finn, Pekka Kuusisto, who offered an unusually intimate reading of the first movement, eschewing any hint of over-emphasis. There was plenty of bite and wit, however, not least in the Finale, while tempos in the central ‘Arias’ were finely judged; and Kuusisto was also especially sensitive to the emotional aspect of the music. Rouvali and the Philharmonia provided the crispest of accompaniments, wholly at one with the irony and humour in the music. Amid a host of felicities, there was some especially fine wind-playing, notably – as elsewhere – from Emily Hultmark on bassoon. Kuusisto’s encore was the ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s B-minor Partita (BWV1002) – played quietly and intensely, and deeply moving in consequence.
Petrushka was superb, the maestro alive to all the colouristic possibilities and he delivered these in spades, projecting the drama and characterisation with the utmost theatricality, whether exterior or – such as in Petrushka’s cell – interior. Diaghilev is said to have opined that Petrushka is more symphonic than choreographic, which for his intentions is probably true, but one doubts whether he would have been anything but bowled over by the marvels that Rouvali and the Philharmonia presented on this occasion; a shame though about the horribly abrupt concert ending and the subsequent loss of a few minutes of mysterious music.
Setting the seal on a stunning evening, the conductor gently moved towards the percussion section and positioned himself at a xylophone to deliver an arrangement and virtuosic performance of Monti’s Czardas, in which he was partnered at the piano by Elizabeth Burley, who had distinguished herself during Petrushka.