Runnicles Back in Commanding Form in Philadelphia

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Brahms, and Strauss: David Kim (violin), Hai-Ye Ni (cello), Philadelphia Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 24.10.2015 (BJ)

Mozart: Symphony No. 29, K. 201

Brahms: Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra

Strauss: Don Juan

Happily, Donald Runnicles seemed much more his familiar perceptive self in this concert than he had been a week earlier. Then, though the Elgar Cello Concerto was beautifully played, the two purely orchestral works that surrounded it were given merely efficient performances. This time, by contrast, all three works benefitted from beautifully balanced—and often quite complex—orchestral textures, while the conductor’s pacing of each score was at once sensible and expressively compelling.

Though I regretted a couple of omitted repeats, Mozart’s 29th Symphony began the evening with impeccable clarity and warmth, the bass strings always providing a firm foundation for the ensemble. The horns, too, seized their opportunities here as throughout the evening with relish.

After intermission, Brahms’s Double Concerto was altogether more involving, and indeed exciting, than his St Antoni Variations had been a week before. In this work, however, though the orchestra was in fine fettle, the overall impression suffered from the unbalanced quality of the solo duo. Hai-Ye Ni fulfills her role as the orchestra’s principal cellist admirably, but in this more exposed context she was distinctly unauthoritative. Even her vital first entry hardly made an impact. When she played the tripping main tune of the finale, it meant nothing, upon which the consistently excellent David Kim took it over, and suddenly there was nuance, and point, and wit in the music.

(I must take issue, by the way, with the statement in the program note that the work “opens . . . with a discursive introduction of the soloists without orchestra.” On the contrary, the opening is a fascinating dialogue in which orchestral prefigurings of the first movement’s two main themes introduce each of the soloists in turn. I wonder why it is that annotators make similar mistakes about this work and about Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, where we are often told that the slow movement begins with a cello solo, which it crucially doesn’t.)

The evening ended with a thrilling and sumptuous performance of Strauss’s Don Juan, with strong horn-playing and gorgeous string tone making the most of the stirring big tune. The concert was enhanced by superb playing from some of the orchestra’s associate and co-principals, including David Cramer on flute, Mark Gigliotti on bassoon, and Angela Zator Nelson, who made a fine impression with some incisive timpani playing in the concerto. She and principal timpanist Don Liuzzi, who took over in the Strauss, made telling use of unusually hard sticks—their choice or Maestro Runnicles’s predilection?

Another associate principal, oboist Peter Smith, demonstrated his quality with cultured tone and stylish phrasing in the Mozart. But then Richard Woodhams reclaimed the first chair in Don Juan, and we were made to realize the difference between his truly excellent deputy—a former Woodhams pupil—and the man who may well be the greatest oboist to be found in any orchestra in the world. His tone is incomparably rich and resonant, and his phrasing of Strauss’s sustained love theme was utterly seductive.

Bernard Jacobson

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