With Sawallisch, Elgar is elegant

Posted: May 19, 2001

In the midst of preparation for its forthcoming Asian tour, the Philadelphia Orchestra paused to do something completely unrelated: conclude its Philadelphia season with nontour repertoire that revealed a new, unexpected Wolfgang Sawallisch specialty.

Having ridden Gustav Mahler's coattails to fashionability in recent years, Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is now known for much more than his Enigma Variations, though his Violin Concerto, arguably the longest in the repertoire, made only its fourth appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra Thursday at the Academy of Music.

Violinists take it on when they've done everything but Schoenberg's thorny Violin Concerto (Elgar's long final movement takes maturity to sustain), though young Hilary Hahn plays it with such soul, it may become one of her signature pieces. But since it's weighted toward orchestra rather than soloist, it's more a conductor's piece than a violinist's. This is only Sawallisch's third Philadelphia outing with Elgar. Although he opened the current season with an excellent Enigma Variations, his work with the Violin Concerto was of a far higher order.

First, there was the sheen. We're used to hearing Elgar played by British orchestras, which don't offer the silky texture and sheer radiance of the Philadelphians. Second: brisk tempos. No simpering or tarrying. Even in moments of emotional revelation (and there are lots), the piece kept moving.

Using a similar approach, the late, dry-eyed Georg Solti could leave Elgar desiccated. Sawallisch and orchestra, however, had an emotionally alive response to every phrase. Conceptually speaking, the interpretation was nearly identical to the composer's own 1934 recording with Yehudi Menuhin. But the details were Sawallisch's own.

The sheer grandness with which he introduced the first-movement coda (imagine a tidal wave, with a little starch) was a great emotional summation of the movement, which has much to sum up. In the third movement, where the soloist begins a long, thinly accompanied soliloquy, Sawallisch introduced this highly confessional passage with a wiry sound from the violins, made by bowing close to the instruments' bridge. Other conductors try this; none that I've heard achieved the shivering, otherworldly effect heard here.

In defense of not mentioning soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann until now, this intelligent, poetic young violinist hasn't yet found the soul of the concerto. And this piece, more than others, doesn't accommodate casual relationships.

The second half of the program was Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), which is longtime core repertoire for Sawallisch, and the performance had great authority, though manifested with more buoyancy and passion than weightiness. However, I sensed the presence of respectful distance that kept the music from having that degree of extra freedom. The orchestra played like outsiders to music that it knows well enough to own. This performance, however, was far more alive than Sawallisch's recording with the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, which, like so much of his discography, is only medium voltage.

David Patrick Stearns' e-mail is dstearns@phillynews.com.

The program will be repeated at 8 tonight at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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