United States Beethoven, Elgar, and Brahms: Johannes Moser (cello), Philadelphia Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 16.10.2015 (BJ)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Brahms: Variations on the Chorale St Antoni
Despite obstreperous vocal competition from an exceptionally bronchial audience, Elgar’s Cello Concerto emerged as the engrossing centerpiece of this program—its technical challenges masterfully met, its often wistful poetry compellingly realized.
Johannes Moser’s account of the solo part was, in terms of tone, not the strongest I have heard, but therein, paradoxically, lay perhaps its greatest strength. He made a lovely, richly colored sound, amply resonant, and yet there was just the slightest suggestion of fragility about it. Though I cannot state categorically that this was deliberate on the cellist’s part, it seemed to me to catch a crucial element in Elgar’s creative makeup.
Far too often the composer is dismissed as a sort of tub-thumping musical—and human!—chauvinist. But even more important than his gift for the grand and majestic gesture is a very special intimacy, a tenderness matched in the work of hardly any other composer I can think of. The poetic epigraph of his Second Symphony, Shelley’s “Rarely, rarely comest thou,/Spirit of Delight!,” hardly sounds like the motto of an unreflecting extrovert. In all of Elgar’s greatest works, there is an inner unquietness that time and again questions the outward panoply, in the First Symphony even undermining the final glorious statement of the motto march theme. And the composer only added the familiar grandiose coda to the score of his Enigma Variations, after the premiere, at the urging of friends.
In the Cello Concerto, the final major product of the composer’s declining years, the questioning, the unquietness, come more than ever to the fore, and it was the ambivalence of the music’s emotional stance that Moser so persuasively captured, along with the touches of that signature tenderness especially in the first and third movements. The German-Canadian cellist was partnered with sensitive punctuality by the evening’s Scottish guest conductor, who drew some surpassingly delicate playing from the orchestra, without downsizing the score’s more assertive moments.
As his eloquent performance of the First Symphony here ten years ago showed, Donald Runnicles is indeed a highly sympathetic Elgarian. On this occasion, I felt that he was not at his usual perceptive best in the evening’s two framing works. There was nothing actively wrong with either of them. Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, which was played with unfailingly crisp accents at thoroughly suitable tempos, is a work that has no particular need of understated lyricism, and may even be said to hold such a quality at arm’s length. Brahms’s St Antoni Variations is a different matter, and while, again, the pacing was cogent and the orchestral playing thoroughly efficient, I did feel the lack of any particularly insightful or poetic touches in Runnicles’s direction of the work.