Guest conductor Donald Runnicles led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a diverse but cohesive program last night at the Kimmel Center. The second half was particularly convincing with Engelbert Humperdinck’s suite from Hansel and Gretel followed by Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser. Humperdinck was a passionate Wagnerian from his youth, arriving at the great man’s doorstep, at the callow age of 21, to introduce himself and do homage. This “most exciting” moment of his life was indicative of a life-long influence which made itself pleasingly felt in his operatic exploration of the celebrated Germanic folk take. The Prelude from the suite covered a variety of moods from vigorous to playful; the heft of its string playing was also evident at the fine, sturdy opening of the “Witch’s Ride”. The “Crackle-Waltz” and “Pantomime” began with unmistakable fizz, giving way, in turn, to the touchingly sweet melody of the children’s night prayer.

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

It was a neat piece of programming to hear this work in such close succession to Wagner. It invited comparison, enabling the audience to make aural links between the master of the fairy-tale and the master of mythology and medievalism. The opening sextet of Tannhäuser was portentous, although for some reason seemed a little lackluster here, but the chorale involving the whole orchestra and invoking the pilgrims’ hymn was expansive and stately. The Allegro representing the sensual, impious Venusberg was attractively evoked: the feathery, frivolous skittishness of the strings, the uneasy, irregular swellings of sound threatening to go out of bounds, the percussive battery of the climax. The final pilgrim’s chorus was once again grand and solemn, with an altogether righteous Wagnerian majesty.

Ralph Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis led off tonight’s program, and its free interpretation of Tallis’ “Why Fumeth in Fight” was rendered, sometimes sweetly, sometimes powerfully, always gravely, by solo string quartet and the two string orchestras. The intermingling of the four solo voices gave us touching moments of ensemble playing, making the space seem much more intimate by shutting off the larger forces of the orchestra for short periods.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 38 in D major “Prague”, composed in 1786 and dedicated to a city which he loved and which loved him in turn, was the advertised bait of the concert as a whole. Yet, as is sometimes the case, the obvious draw did not turn out to be the most striking rendition of the evening. There was, of course, vibrancy and energy, and at its best, a fine, rousing spirit, compelling allegro rhythms, and a controlled freneticism in the last movement Presto.

But for all that, it wasn’t one of those utterly memorable performances. Scaling back or switching quickly to quiet from the lively passages did not provide as striking a contrast as it might have had; I began to feel that the quality of pauses (between breaths, bows, notes or instrument voices) was not what it could have been. Pauses should be unfilled but yet not empty: ideally the silences, however tiny, should speak within a score. The spaces in between matter immensely. Each concert has its own trajectory of quality, and this was definitely one which was weighted towards the splendid second half.