Dutoit's fresh reading of familiar 'Enigma Variations'

Classical music warhorses, like cliches, become what they are for a reason: They communicate something important that's understood by many. And because they lose meaning when overused - does anybody really know what awesome means anymore? - they're hardly inexhaustible. That's why the Philadelphia Orchestra's Friday performance of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, one of the most popular works in the repertoire and whose "Nimrod" section has achieved "greatest" status, was a model instance of maintaining meaning in often-heard music.

The orchestra hasn't played the piece in four years at the Kimmel Center's subscription concerts. Good. It needs a rest. Also, the piece seems not to be the core repertoire for chief conductor Charles Dutoit, whose Gallic sensibility is bound to bring something unusual to Elgar's 14 character portraits from late Victorian England - the composer immortalized his circle of friends in sound - with all of its wit, smarts, and subversion of social formalities. And yes, Dutoit projected a strong inner vision of the piece that made you want to hear it again, beginning with an unusually slow reading of the halting theme on which the piece is based. He lingered over some of the higher-tension harmonies, reminding you that the best friendships aren't trouble-free.

The performance's freshness came from a subtle elasticity with tempos and something less tangible: the sense that the emotion behind such touches is being currently experienced rather than remembered. And in the thick brocade of Elgar's orchestration, instruments can be blended (or not) with an infinite range of possibilities. Dutoit was full of choices I'd never heard, sometimes making voicings evolve within a single chord. And in a piece about personalities, incidental solos must be personalized. Principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, in particular, was quietly amazing.

Equally intimate is Schumann's Cello Concerto, but because its achingly lyrical melodies were written during the onset of the composer's mental illness, the piece feels a bit unfinished, requiring more than the usual intervention. Cello soloist Gautier Capucon, with his keen dramatic instincts and superb musicality, is ideal for this task, his clarity of vision overriding moments of audible labor in the wide-leaping cello lines. In close collaboration with Dutoit, he moved in and out of expressive blends with the individual players and choirs in the orchestra with an effect that was beyond mesmerizing.

The orchestra's role in the concerto can seem remarkably inconsequential - at times just contributing some simple chords while the cellist handles the soul baring. Yet, Dutoit made the accompaniment speak, sometimes by leaning into any given chord in ways that gave it a sense of beginning, middle, and end.

Richard Strauss' Suite From Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme would be twice as likable were it half as long as its 30-minute duration. Though you can't call it background music, it's also too incidental to be foreground music, and at its most charming, takes you into the sound world of Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera written to be performed on the same bill. But that just makes you want to hear Ariadne instead.

 


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.