High-concept Philadelphia Orchestra concert renews Brahms

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Vanessa Vasquez, Soprano. (photo: Paul Sirochman)

When concert programs are composed almost like pieces of music, familiar masterpieces can be re-illuminated and less-familiar ones given new life – which is what Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin assembled for the Thursday concert at the Kimmel Center.

A high-concept program created a path to and from Brahms' Symphony No. 4, with J.S. Bach at one chronological end and Brahms' valedictory chorale preludes at the other. In this context, the Brahms symphony showed even greater extremes of architectural and lyrical passion, while Bach seemed less dutifully religious.

None of this immediately made sense on paper. Leading up to the Symphony No. 4 was a first half consisting of  Bach's early-period Cantata No. 150 ("Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich") and late-period Brahms chorale preludes -- hymn settings, in effect -- alternating between original organ versions and recently minted orchestral transcriptions by Detlev Glanert (commissioned by the orchestra). Each showed different features in music that can seem to have all-too-uniform solemnity. Here, a loose-limbed narrative emerged, something like Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ.

On organ, Peter Richard Conte favored sonorities with a kind of spatial depth suggesting a cathedral acoustic. Though one of the more distinctive voices in German orchestral music, Glanert was working "on assignment" here, and doing so with respect and earnestness toward the original that I'd love to see repaid by the orchestra doing his more characteristic works. Maybe his Brahms-Fantasie, for starters? 

The Bach cantata has thematic links with the symphony, and was fascinating for having recitatives, arias, and choruses that behave impulsively, with freer-flowing ideas (even if they aren't great ideas) –  the inner workings being all the more apparent with the small instrumental ensemble. The quartet of soloists drawn from the ranks of Academy of Vocal Arts – Vanessa Vasquez, Chrystal E. Williams, Jonas Hacker, and André Courville – doubled as the chorus, singing Bach like outsiders, but well enough.

And what did all of this say about Brahms' last and greatest symphony? I was reminded how Brahms moved steadily forward into the future while looking back, harnessing his inspiration by hemming it in with formal confines perhaps known only to sonnetists.  The symphony's performance, though, was anything but cerebral. Much of it had a clean, wall-of-sound quality similar to the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (as opposed to its more metallic current sonority), though Nézet-Séguin flooded the second movement with echt-Philadelphia color. 

He often gave each theme group its own tempo. A throwback to pre-World War II performance practice? More likely, he was  enjoying a kind of impulsive freedom with the orchestra that allows him to make certain kinds of tempo decisions on the spot. Flutist Jeff Khaner followed suit with his expansively molded fourth-movement solo. Generally, the symphony seemed to pour out in a single breath with no between-movement pauses and great emotional generosity that seemed even more feverish with momentary ensemble blemishes.

The program is to be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.