Capturing the nuances of Brahms and Mozart

Donald Runnicles
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

Whether they're expecting it or not, the fun-seeking denizens of Macau have some potentially great Brahms coming their way, to judge from Thursday's unofficial preview concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra's tour of China next month. Donald Runnicles is the guest conductor, and if you've heard that he has evolved from a solid musician to a profound one of late, his Brahms Symphony No. 2 at the Kimmel Center was evidence of that.

So fluidly and organically written is Brahms' Second that one seldom hears a truly fresh performance of the piece, which evolves so effortlessly from its opening three-note motif that the piece seems to play itself. But not with Runnicles. Many moments when Brahms seems to repeat himself for emphasis didn't feel repetitive at all, as Runnicles revealed through articulation and coloring how subtly Brahms constantly varied his ideas (and in that way, was much closer to Wagner than his contemporaries thought).

His version of the Philadelphia sound was on the lean side. The orchestra usually has clean attacks, but, under Runnicles, there were unusually clean releases (even though French horns weren't at their best). Never did you hear extraneous sound. Never did the harmonic saturation obscure the symphony's inner counterpoint.

This is not to suggest the performance was in any way subjective or dry. The big cello melody of the second movement was full of unguarded emotionalism. The final seconds were amazing: As Brahms adds one instrumental choir after another, Runnicles made you feel the exhilaration of arrival, piling one on top of another.

 The often-heard pianist Jonathan Biss played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 13, the composer's least-integrated and, for me, all the more fascinating. The final movement feels like four different pieces spliced together. Most episodes are punctuated by cadenzas - all giving Biss more to play. And considering that not all of the cadenzas survive, he composed a few himself (though I dare anybody to guess which was which).

Though I've always respected Biss' playing, I've never heard so much meaning in his coloring and phrasing. His ability to say so much with a single note is the mark of a Mozart specialist. Once past the first movement (which had an uncertain tempo scheme, with Biss seeming to prefer something faster and more baroque), he played the piece with an ease of expression that suggested he wrote the entire thing himself.