Two or three years ago, there was a Philharmonia concert at DMH which featured a conductor quite new to me, a Finn by the name of Santuu-Matias Rouvali . When he almost danced his way onto the podium and waved at the audience, all the old prejudices associated with conductors of classical music rose to the surface. They are supposed to be at least middle aged, the older the better. This fellow looked hardly out of school. Instead of a studied stick technique, the baton carved out great arcs in the air and he actually seemed to be enjoying himself, as well he might having been handed one of the best orchestras in the world to conduct. In addition, he had the cheek to be playing one of the most blithe pieces of music in the repertoire, Bizet’s Symphony in C, which the great Sir Thomas Beecham had made his own with his unique ability to convert into the exquisite what some would think simply to be charming. Well, suffice it to say that the young man achieved precisely that and thus immediately put him onto my list of musicians worth listening to.
So, his return in an intriguing mainly English programme was much looked forward to. For other reasons it was a significant event since a fortnight before it had been announced that he, and another fine talent, the Czech Jakub Hrusa, had been appointed Principal Guest Conductors of the orchestra and this was his first concert in Leicester in that capacity.
In the event, right from the opening of Smetana’s Vltava the music making showed precisely why the appointment had been made. The woodwind music of the opening can just sound like a bit of woodwind twiddling before the famous tune emerges. Here in the DMH acoustic the conductor achieved a quite wonderful liquidness from the very start of the journey downstream. On the way the peasants danced , the water nymphs swam, the Rapids boiled to dramatic effect and the grandness of the river as it approached Prague had a fine majesty. In fact, the performance, instead of being merely a series of picturesque scenes, had an onward overall momentum which was highly impressive.
So far so good, but I wondered how the much more formidable challenge of Elgar’s great Cello Concerto would be met, performed by a German cellist and a Finnish conductor. Here again prejudice can get in the way. We used to complain that English music was not enough played abroad but could be very snooty about the results when foreigners actually took in on.
Well, many foreigners are beginning to do precisely that and the results can be compelling. In this case, I thought it to be one of the most moving performances of the work I have heard. A friend of mine likes to divide solo cellists into the romantics and the aristocrats. The German Alban Gerhardt is clearly of the latter group. The playing rarely sought to emote and yet every sudden turn of feeling, of which there are many in this immensely subtle work, seemed to be caught unerringly. The scherzo had a tremendous fizz to it and yet the apparently effortless beauty of soloist’s tone invested the reflective moments throughout the work and particularly at its end with a poignant dignity which was the very quintessence of Elgar at his greatest. Miracles of miracles, the accompaniment too seemed utterly in accord with this vision. A performance to treasure.
Lastly came Holst’s planetary exploration, once again a work indelibly connected with great conductors of the generation of Sir Adrian Boult, who conducted the first performance and whose way with the work somehow seemed the gold standard against which all was to be judged. I remember, for instance, in his performances the very effective steady build up of tension in Mars, The Bringer of War. Rouvali on the other hand went a different route, taking it at a real allegro and with the massed brass of the Philharmonia in thrilling form this seemed equally right. I have never heard a more convincing depiction of the horror of 20c. battle. Indeed in every movement , with the orchestra on scintillating form, Rouvali revealed himself as a master of musical characterisation. Time and again he hit the target. Particularly memorable for this elderly fellow was Saturn, The bringer of old age in which Holst’s chilling landscape was memorably evoked culminating in the terrible jangling climax, which communicates for me all the pain experienced by many with growing old, only for the movement to end with what might be taken as stoical acceptance. One could go on. Mercury was indeed virtuosic like quicksilver and the strings in the famous tune in Jupiter were richly warm without the patriotic pomp and circumstance of the hymn tune it became which was so far from Holst’s vision. Indeed, as in the Smetana’s dancing peasants, the conductor made much of the rollicking folk element in this movement. By the end, I thought that like the Elgar it was hard to remember a more convincing performance of a much played piece. One thing is sure. The Philharmonia’s rapport with this conductor is something to marvel at and one can see precisely why he was offered the post of Principal Guest Conductor. Next season’s first concert will feature Jakob Hrusa so Leicester will have a unique opportunity to compare these two new stars in the orchestra’s firmament.
Event in May
On Saturday May 13th at 7.30 p.m and at the New Walk Museum the young pianist Martin James Bartlett makes his Leicester debut. Though I have yet to hear him, I suspect this is a concert not to be missed. A past winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, he is now being spoken of as one of the most exciting players of his generation. Indeed, I gather a week after the concert he flies off to America to take part in the final of the prestigious Van Cliburn competition. Consequently, there has been some adjustment to the original programme with the inclusion of a Beethoven sonata.