Prom 42: Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Seong-Jin Cho & Philharmonia Orchestra – Elgar, Chopin & Richard Strauss

Edward Elgar
In the South (Alassio), Op.50
Fryderyk Chopin
Piano Concerto No.1 in E-minor, Op.11
Richard Strauss
Aus Italien, Op.16

Seong-Jin Cho (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 16 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

A ‘Latin’ Prom, Elgar’s and Strauss’s Anglicisation/Germanicisation of late Romantic Italy offsetting the bel canto aria and ornament of Chopin in Warsaw a couple of generations earlier. Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition, delivered a chiselled E-minor Concerto (second to be written, first to be published). His brand of crystalline pianism, largely fault-free (he finished his studies under Michel Béroff at the Paris Conservatoire), along with his grasp of architecture and onward drive, ensured a reading in which clarity, elegance and nobility were to the fore. The central Romanze was allowed to speak and sing, the decoration voiced and timed rather than glossed over; similarly the encore, the ubiquitous E-flat Nocturne, Opus 9/2, as perfectly spun as I can remember, fioritura immaculate. Santtu-Matias Rouvali, following up on his Prom debut last year, was here and there less in accord, needing Cho’s piloting to tauten and energise the action. It habitually surprises that so many conductors have difficulty establishing the 3/4 maestoso momentum of the first movement’s exposition; equally why in the finale’s briefer orchestral commentaries few can resist the temptation to rush, invariably at the expense of deportment. The reasoning to generate a spurious (portentous) ritardando rounding off the opening Allegro (to a lesser extent that also of the Rondo) eluded me.

For openers, Elgar’s 1904 concert overture In the South (Alassio) found Rouvali on securer ground if ultimately on the measured side of the spectrum, like Sinopoli some three minutes (13%) slower than Boult as well as the composer’s own 78s (Kingsway Hall, 1930). A dose of Elgar’s swaggering thrust, Pappapo’s Ligurian winter sunshine, wouldn’t have gone amiss. That said, momentary lapses of Philharmonia confidence notwithstanding, there was evident effort to get the fantasia-like mosaic of the piece to gel. The viola solo and chamber detailing of the canto popolare episode, molto tranquillo, was especially beautiful, curls of smoky nostalgia edged in Edwardian frost.

With its elan, foreshadowings of things to come (Don JuanZarathustra), textural directness, and preciously brilliant orchestration (Strauss was in his early twenties), Aus Italien (1886, dedicated to Hans von Bülow) made for an arresting second half, the outcome, one sensed, of rehearsal time well spent. Its species of landscape canvas and intricately oiled palette – a tone-poem in the guise of a four-movement “symphonic fantasy”, compositionally “the connecting link,” Strauss maintained, “between the old and the new” – has long been a favourite hunting ground of Rouvali’s. Couple that with his general aptitude for Strauss’s style, and we had a virtuoso reading living up to expectations, the bustle and tussle of the Funiculi Funicula finale consumingly Vesuvian in impact. Historically, this was a Proms first: Henry Wood’s 1903 account at the Queen’s Hall was divided between two concerts (August 27th, first two movements, UK premiere; September 10th, third and fourth reversed).

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