Can Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 (the "Emperor") possibly have anything new to report from within its familiar folds of opulent pianism and orchestral tranquillity?
There's more there, it turns out, than the mere prettiness that has made the piece the one concerto to know if you're going to know only one concerto. Leading the Philadelphia Orchestra Thursday night in Verizon Hall, Vladimir Jurowski deployed a wondrous paradox. He reduced the size of the ensemble and paid scrupulous attention to limiting the length of notes. The typical plushness of the piece was gone. And sound blossomed. Not in years has the orchestra's viola section, halved to a handful here, produce as much sound - burnished, penetrating - as it did in the third movement.
Not that any of this thicket-clearing was in anticipation of a pushover soloist. Yefim Bronfman is a powerhouse. But again, paradox. The fact that he could sensitively match instrumental sections and solo voices rather than simply putting out a lot of sound made the keyboard colors multiply. With pizzicato accompaniment, he got a charming music-box sound in the first movement. He was able to have a genuine dialogue with players in the last movement, whose chief rhythmic idea had a snap and clarity that constantly propelled itself through its variable treatments.
None of this would have had as much impact had not Jurowski and the orchestra shaped the first movement opening (orchestral exposition) so finely. They paid exquisite attention to the length of notes, which in turn helped to connect certain notes to each other, in turn adding up to phrasing that tells a story.
Bronfman's encore, childlike of spirit and nearly six minutes long, was Schumann's Arabesque and a story in itself. Its specific contrasting technique - fluidity vs. rigidity - seemed a deepening of Beethoven's ideas.
You could loosely connect all three pieces of the program. Attaching the "Emperor" nickname wasn't Beethoven's idea, but it has stuck. Nikolai Miaskovsky's Symphony No. 10, played by this orchestra 85 years ago and not again until Thursday night, revolves around Peter the Great, portrayed in a Pushkin poem about a young man who curses a statue of the Czar that then comes to life and hunts him down. All this, and various characters, are discernible in the single-movement symphony a little more than 15 minutes long. It is concentrated genius, and the ironfisted punch left the audience far from enthusiastic and the ensemble looking put out - despite a brilliant performance. Are we increasingly lulled by our age of ceaseless entertainment? Pure art can be disconcerting. Jurowski deflected applause at the end by holding the score aloft, giving it credit.
The conductor no doubt recognized the potential of this orchestra's vibrant colors when he conjured the battling cossacks and nationalism of Janácek's Taras Bulba. The piece produces the sensation of walking through a series of doors from one brilliantly lit room to the next, a journey that left two related thoughts in its wake: that the evening had produced three strikingly different ensembles, and that in each case conditions were created to make the orchestra the best possible version of itself. To wit: Jurowski is in a class by himself.
Additional performances: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$147. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.