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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Beethoven and Elgar: Andreas Haefliger (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Donald Runnicles, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, 5 February, 2005 (BJ)

This weekend for the first time a guest conductor had the opportunity to perform in Verizon Hall with the new – or rather, restored traditional –orchestral seating layout introduced last month by music director Christoph Eschenbach. Again, as in the latter’s presentation of the Mahler Ninth, the symphony programmed by Donald Runnicles was one that benefited especially from the division of the first and second violin sections to left and right, for Elgar was a composer who made much play with the antiphony between those groups. The scherzo of the First Symphony, in particular, is a locus classicus for such effects, and its cut-and-thrust dialogue was greatly enhanced by their spatial realization in this performance.

It was the scherzo, and even more emphatically the slow movement that evolves magically out of it, that made the most consistently impressive effect: the latter’s sequence of gorgeous melodies blossomed eloquently in the hands of an orchestra that was playing at its superb best. Runnicles, born in Edinburgh though with a career mostly based in the United States, showed a keen understanding of the symphony’s musical line and dramatic arc, beginning with a statement of the opening motto theme that for once kept it smartly up to the steady marching pulse prescribed by the composer. The outer movements also had their share of beautiful moments, but a few spots in the first Allegro were a shade raucous, and raucous is something that the music of Elgar, one of the world’s greatest natural orchestrators, should never sound. After the slow introduction to the finale, moreover, the offbeat rhythmic punctuation of the main movement was not at once firmly established.

About the very end of the symphony it was possible for a critic to be in two minds. The glorious apotheosis of the motto theme in the brass sang out less freely than it sometimes does. You could regard that as a flaw. But it is the emotional ambivalence – the sense that triumph is being achieved only in the teeth of the vehement opposition expressed by conflicting harmonies and rhythms – that is most quintessentially Elgarian in this fearsomely embattled celebration, and from that point of view Runnicles’s conception was more than ordinarily satisfying.

In Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto before intermission there was nothing whatsoever to be ambivalent about. The orchestra played superbly here too, in hand-and-glove partnership with a pianist who combined technical fluency and luminous tone with a rare willingness to let the music unfold at its own proper pace. Andreas Haefliger, son of the great Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger, demonstrated this last quality both in the slow movement, where Beethoven’s long-drawn-out Largo chords are far too often undermined by nervous insecurity, and in several passages in the outer movements where again many pianists hasten disruptively ahead of the beat. My comment should not be understood as suggesting any lack of imaginative flexibility in Haefliger’s playing. Indeed, his gift for illuminating the music by an expansion of the pulse here, a tightening of it there, was rewarding in itself. The main theme of the finale, for instance, brought a fanciful new touch of character at each reappearance. Such insights may well have made the conductor’s task more arduous. But Runnicles rose splendidly to the challenge, and in any case the dividends for the listener were enormous.

Over the past two decades I have heard a number of great Philadelphia Orchestra performances of Beethoven’s Third Concertos by pianists ranging from Claudio Arrau to Emanuel Ax and Krystian Zimerman, in collaboration with conductors of the caliber of Riccardo Muti and David Zinman; this one by Haefliger and Runnicles ranked right up with the finest of them. Nor did I find, either in the Beethoven or in the Elgar, any trace of the supposed inadequacies in the hall’s acoustics that have been dragged back into public scrutiny lately in the local press. But that is a topic I hope to address more fully before long on Musicweb. For the moment, let it suffice to say that while Verizon, like any hall in the world, is not perfect, both the solo piano and the orchestra sounded in this concert quite marvelous, with beautifully characterized tone (those few raucous moments aside), excellent balance, and more than ample visceral impact.

Bernard Jacobson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)