Seen and Heard International
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.