Departed music directors aren't always missed, but Ignat Solzhenitsyn's return to the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia was greeted with unusual dedication by the musicians, almost as if they were reclaiming an identity Monday at the Kimmel Center.
Solzhenitsyn's penchant for lesser-known works by major composers yielded a wonderful discovery in Schumann's Introduction and Allegro Appassionato (Op. 92; the conductor doubled as pianist), which tries to be urbane but has the composer's customary depths nonetheless. Every phrase had so much life that listeners had little room to stand back and ask how well the piece stands up to better-known Schumann.
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Op. 10), not as big a discovery but seldom heard, established Benjamin Britten as a major force in 1937. The theme is nothing very lyrical, but each variation creates a hugely different world, in both sound and substance. Whether eerie waltz, wordless opera scene, or mysterious exploration of the unknown, the variations felt so fully realized in this performance that, as in the Schumann, you never looked over your shoulder at what antecedents might have contributed to this confoundingly mature piece. Just when you knew where it was going, it went someplace better.
While such visceral qualities weren't unknown in past Solzhenitsyn performances, they seemed more in evidence here. If this is the direction his maturity is going, it's a good one, in contrast to years past when he could be analytical to the point of obscurity. He needed fresh stimuli upon his 2010 depature, which then made sense. Now, returning here and with Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, his concerts loom larger.
His presence aside, the performance reaffirmed the Chamber Orchestra standard that has been less in evidence of late. While Haydn symphonies can be the starting point of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, they're the end point for the Chamber Orchestra (Monday's was Symphony No. 94), if only because the Perelman Theater is such a repertoire-appropriate hall for pre-Brahms symphonies. When the music-making has a solid viewpoint, any Haydn encounter in Perelman is preferable to one in Verizon Hall - and so it was on Monday.