There's a quality to the Elgar Cello Concerto in E Minor that asks the soloist to expose the scope of what it means to be human, and the fullness of the answer determines whether the piece comes across as great. This music is inescapably personal. No one gets through it truly successfully without passing through crushing pathos and reaching a state of calm that can make time stand still.
Cellist Johannes Moser and the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Donald Runnicles conjured that marvelous sense of time suspension in the second movement of the Elgar on Friday night at Verizon Hall. Orchestra and soloist grew almost absurdly quiet and still, and it was the high point of the concert. And doesn't it seem like a miracle when calm can be the high point of something in this noisy world?
Technique is a nonissue for the German-Canadian cellist. The fluttering scherzo-like passages were tossed in the air with a lightness that verged on carefree. The opening of the first movement, though, asks for an air of struggle and tragedy that did not appear to be in Moser's bag of tricks. It's not that he was superficial. But as for digging deep - both literally in terms of bow pressure as well as figuratively for meaning - he didn't quite get there. This seemed still like a young interpretation.
Runnicles, a frequent guest these days, is not a conductor with a lot of strong opinions. In Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, he intervened minimally in shaping phrases, but the ensemble was sharp. Four double basses produced gorgeously present sound, which, like that of timpanist Don S. Liuzzi, traveled with impressive immediacy.
The opinions phased in and out in Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Opus 56a. The "Grazioso" variation grew a bit weary, lacking in details and momentum. But the sixth, "Vivace" variation found its pace somewhere between a canter and a gallop, a jaunty orchestra out for a ride with Brahms on a nice day.