Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra & An Alpine Symphony – Sunrise! – Philharmonia/Rouvali

Richard Strauss
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

Philharmonia Orchestra
Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 30 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Two tone poems here (despite its title and length, the through-composed An Alpine Symphony is effectively that) which both open with sunrises, heralding a new season for the Philharmonia with its new Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, and a concert series at the Southbank Centre called ‘Human / Nature’. To some extent that misunderstands the Nietzschean background to both works which are not merely pictorial descriptions of the countryside – however magnificently they do depict the dramatic or sublime (even in the latter’s philosophical sense) – but reflect upon the phenomenon of ‘Nature’ as a metaphysical concept (the way things are) as in the writings of the influential German philosopher. (The German word Natur perhaps captures more of the latter, than the more ambiguous English ‘nature’.) After the ravages of a worldwide pandemic an audience must surely come to both ideas with a more complicated and nuanced set of responses than to be merely enchanted by natural sights or to assume that modern mankind has conquered nature’s laws, or ever could.

Also sprach Zarathustra began portentously, with rumbling lower strings which continued ominously even after the broad and majestic account of ‘Sunrise’ into the following section. That drama did not quite carry through across the rest of Rouvali’s interpretation, as a comparative leisureliness in tempo and lack of tension resulted in some lack of momentum overall, notwithstanding attentive conducting (some deft flourishes of the hand by Rouvali) and fine execution by the orchestra in individual passages.

A sudden eruption of energy at ‘Of the Great Longing’ perhaps left any impetus a little too late, and the lilting account of the ‘The Dance Song’ – with Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s charming violin solo and deliberately hammered glockenspiel notes making it seem playful and more a rural ländler than a frenzied waltz. The fairly lithe sonority which Rouvali drew from the orchestra was telling in some moments, but it skated over the music’s textural complexity at others, not quite distilling the urgency and depth of Strauss’s youthful score.

An Alpine Symphony was generally more riveting, with a sense of breadth somewhat better handled across the overall structure of the work (this performance getting on for an hour in length) although pauses hung awkwardly on the air (either general silences, or quiet passages of transitional material) which, again, worked against maintaining tension convincingly from beginning to end. Some passages were pointed up in a rather eccentric, mannered fashion, not least the expansive appearance of the main theme when it came ‘On the Summit’, which made a lumbering final ascent to that. On the whole, unquestionably the Philharmonia were on virtuosic form, creating some vivid colours and sonic atmospheres, the strings warm and radiant, if not burnished, with a dynamic, swirling darkness to begin, and the brass fully resplendent, including the hunting horns during ‘The Ascent’, off-stage in the gallery to the side, but not completely at a distance outside the auditorium.

Rouvali’s interpretations were thoughtful and respectful but could afford to probe still more into the music and push it further, rather than to remain content with it as merely genial music-making.

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and available for 30 days thereafter on BBC Sounds.

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