A good friend can mean a lot in trying times. The Philadelphia Orchestra has such a friend in pianist Emanuel Ax, a frequent collaborator, who enlivened the orchestra’s latest pre-recorded concert with a sparkling performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major, K449. Ax likened the piano’s role in the concerto to the characters in a Mozart opera, with each section developed and distinct, and his interpretation reflected that level of detail. His playing never turned unnecessarily flashy, and in a piece of music that can sometimes seem like it exists primarily on the surface level, he mined surprising levels of depth. Even though the bottom half of his now-bearded face was covered by the customary mask, Ax’s expressivity was never in question.

Emanuel Ax and The Philadelphia Orchestra © Jeff Fusco
Emanuel Ax and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The reduced forces necessitated by social distancing also did wonders for the orchestra itself, which has never been at its strongest in Mozart under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Even now, no one would mistake them for a historically-informed performance ensemble. But the overly blended string sound you expect was replaced by sharper attacks and firmly delineated lines. Nézet-Séguin favored a more luxurious tempo that put the piano and orchestra in full conversation. The warmth of the low strings nicely balanced the pluck of the violins.

Brahms’ Serenade no. 2 dominated the program, showing off the power of the orchestra’s exquisite woodwinds, who can pack as much punch as the legendary strings. In particular, associate principal oboe Peter Smith crafted a rich, wine-dark tone in the plentiful music the composer supplied for his instrument. Smith continues to distinguish himself as the most valuable player for this digital season, essentially acting as a principal while Philippe Tondre, the new first-chair oboe, is benched due to travel restrictions. Despite the elegant playing from Smith and others, though, the Serenade seemed ultimately formless in this interpretation, the lack of forward momentum underlining the piece’s incontinent length.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

If the Brahms felt too long, Jessica Hunt’s Climb was just the opposite. This curtain raiser – inspired by Beethoven and finally receiving its premiere after last season’s postponement – riveted the ear for several minutes before ending abruptly, almost in mid-thought. Perhaps this was intentional. Hunt lives with dysautonomia, a chronic condition that affects the nervous system, and sought to reflect the realities of living with disability in her music. That came through in explosions of sound that layered instruments on top of each other, mimicking physical sensations like tachycardia or tinnitus. A high-register solo line for concertmaster David Kim seemed to represent screaming into the void. The effect was equally disorienting and stirring.

This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream