Two spirited, late romantic works bookended a more somber one in Ludovic Morlot’s Masterworks performance with the Seattle Symphony. Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, which was the sobering middle work, demands a cellist of phenomenal technique, keen perception and astonishing stamina. The technical and interpretational capabilities of French cello master Xavier Phillips more than fulfilled these requirements in his noble rendering of the work.

Xavier Phillips © Musicaglotz
Xavier Phillips
© Musicaglotz

The prizewinning Rostropovich-mentored cellist has demonstrated his virtuosity in his performance of Dutilleux's fiendishly difficult Tout un monde lointain. His Elgar furthered the impression that he is an artist who belongs in the highest echelons of cello mastery. Despite the enormous technical difficulties Elgar requires of his soloist, among them highly demanding passages in thumb position against the heaviness of an almost Wagnerian orchestration, Phillips was able to project his sound throughout the stentorian tutti passages with tensile strength in the opening movement and fiendish finale. His interpretation of the Adagio was touchingly introspective. The scherzo, brisk but unhurried, impressively and tastefully demonstrated the soloist’s facile passagework. 

As an extra treat for the audience, Phillips provided a virtuosic rendering, dedicated to his esteemed mentor Rostropovich, of Benjamin Britten’s Serenata from his Cello Suite no. 1. Played entirely pizzicato, a stringed instrument technique for which Britten showed great fondness in his Simple Symphony, Phillips drew maximum beauty and resonance from plucking the strings of his Gofriller cello, with engaging manner and stylish flourishes.

Phillips and Morlot clearly shared a mutual vision for this performance, the conductor carefully keeping a true balance between orchestra and soloist, with firmness and sensitivity, without resorting to extreme gestures to keep the orchestra from covering the soloist. This is the sign of a deep connection and understanding between conductor and orchestra, and over the five seasons since Morlot took up his music directorship he has clearly fostered that relationship and honed it to a fine polish.

Morlot chose to open his evening of late romantic and early 20th-century pieces with the First Waltz Sequence from Richard Strauss’s perennial favorite Der Rosenkavalier. Elgar's concerto was written almost a decade after Strauss’ charming and sophisticated opera, yet the earlier work seems harmonically far more dissonant in comparison. Nonetheless, those harmonies and melodies which they accompany remain endlessly captivating, and the piece provides ample opportunity to show off the solo capabilities of the orchestra’s principal players. Aside from the much-loved violin and clarinet solos, this arrangement also included a surprising extended solo for the principal double bass player. All were expertly played.

The evening’s final work, Antonín Dvořák’s youthful Symphony no. 5 in F major, offered a contrast in mood from the melancholic Elgar. The work’s multifaceted melodic and harmonic structure shows the influence of the composer’s contemporaries, and its high-energy atmosphere also afforded a perfect match in tone and color for Morlot’s robust, spirited leadership. One of Morlot’s many attributes as a conductor is that he is a veritable powerhouse of energy and vigor, and in this rendering the orchestra responded in kind, with robust, animated playing in the lively sections and sensitive playing in the lyrical sections. The march-like opening of the first movement, reminiscent of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, was played with elegance and nobility. In the achingly tender second theme, passages of which bring to mind César Franck’s D minor Symphony, Morlot drew sweetly sentimental playing and lush sound from the string sections. The wistful slow movement, reminscent of Tchaikovsky, was interpreted generously and expansively.

After a brief, Swan Lake-like, transition showing another cross-influence between Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, Morlot again combined poetic expressivity and dynamic enthusiasm in the joyful Scherzo. Morlot’s fearlessness in allowing himself a bit of dancing on the podium added to the thoroughly engaging atmosphere portrayed in this movement, which reflects both the darkly lilting third movement of the composer’s D minor Seventh Symphony and the geniality of his sprightly Slavonic Dances.

In the final movement, which starts out in an uncharacteristically aggressive, brooding, manner but quickly morphs into a more optimistic mood, Morlot drove the action insistently all the way to the optimistic, Strauss-like coda, thus bringing the program full circle, and bringing the audience to its feet in a heartily enthusiastic reception.