Eschenbach brings exploratory energy to early and late Strauss

Just because Richard Strauss' boisterous tone poem Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks often seems to "play itself" doesn't mean that it should arrive on autopilot, as often as it does. In his return to the Philadelphia Orchestra, former music director Christoph Eschenbach didn't allow that to happen, in ways that could restore one's lost faith in the piece.

In his Strauss/Schumann program on Thursday at the Kimmel Center, your ears settled into the "once-upon-a-time" theme that opens Strauss' series of musico-dramatic adventures that depict the mythical roguish prankster and show the composer full of guttural humor in what ultimately emerged as his most fractured score.

On Thursday, Eschenbach encouraged the piece's all-over-the-place tendencies by showing Strauss, 30 years old when he composed Eulenspiegel, hitting his stride as a master orchestrator and using just about every instrumental color he could think of to tell the story.

The piece's episodes took on a three-dimensional sense of musical physicality. Brass and percussion had a particularly high old time, although Eschenbach saved plenty of the Philadelphia Orchestra's richness for the piece's final moments.

However dazzling, the piece has never seemed all that important in the grand scheme of symphonic history. But in this articulate performance it came off like a precursor to Petrouchka, which seemed to leap from Stravinsky's folk-music-steeped brain 15 years later with no precedents, but probably arose from a solid acquaintance with Till Eulenspiegel.

Then it was back to 19-year-old Strauss, who was only a shadow of his future self in the Horn Concerto No. 1. Still, you can hear him mastering the musical conventions of the past in a perfectly viable but not especially distinctive piece for this under-served concerto instrument. Principal hornist Jennifer Montone more than fulfilled the heroic requirements of the opening moments, but she was at her best once the piece began its journey into thematic development, phrasing with meaningful lyricism but also shading her sound as a highly expressive device. You never heard any sense of labor, indicating how good she was.

Schumann's Symphony No. 2 arrived full of alternative possibilities (Eschenbach is always good for that), particularly in light of what current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin delivered in his swift, lean Deutsche Grammophon-label Schumann recordings with Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

I've often heard Eschenbach as a throwback to pre-World War II conductors, who took a bit more time and willingly sacrificed tidiness for depth. The first two movements were good, though not revelatory. But the third movement was indeed memorable (thanks partly to particularly wonderful wind solos). And the level of grandeur achieved in the final movement justified Eschenbach's taste for daring rhetorical pauses: The music (and its listeners) need breathing room.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or