Philharmonia/Rouvali review – new principal conductor proves himself a fine Straussian

Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s first concert as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor also marked the start of the orchestra’s Human/Nature series, examining musical responses to the natural world and mankind’s often disastrous relationship with it. New works by John Luther Adams, Bryce Dessner and Isobel Waller-Bridge address climate change later in the series. Rouvali began, however, with Richard Strauss at his most colossal, prefacing the Alpine Symphony with Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The two works are linked. Also Sprach Zarathustra looks at both man’s relationship with the universe and human striving for self-transcendence in the wake of Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God. Among Strauss’s initial plans for what became the Alpine Symphony, meanwhile, was a work based on Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, depicting “moral purification through one’s own strength”, vestiges of which remain in the symphony’s depiction of a climbing expedition confronted not only by nature’s awesome beauty, but also with its power and changeability.

With the Philharmonia on tremendous form, Rouvali proved a fine Straussian, measured in his approach, and careful in his attention to detail and colour. It’s a style well suited to the Alpine Symphony with its arch-like structure and inexorable narrative trajectory of ascent and descent, during which the thematic and harmonic material of the first half buckles and distorts as nature gradually gains the upper hand. The escalating tension was beautifully controlled, the colossal forces (well over 100 players) superbly marshalled, the sheer volume of sound always integral to the drama, never an end in itself.

Zarathustra, however, took a few moments to find its feet. Once past that famous, monumental opening, the Backworldsmen section – depicting those believing in an afterlife – felt fractionally too slow, despite the glowing string sound, though the performance really took wing at Of Joys and Passions, where the sensuousness was immediate and the elan irresistible. The tension and tempos relaxed a bit too much again when we reached the scientists’ fugue, though the whirring excitement as we approach the Dance Song was irresistible and the ambivalent finale, in which man and nature remain at odds, was exquisitely done.

Available on BBC Sounds until 29 October and available to stream on from 14 October.