Truly intuitive musical partnerships are rare, at least on the level enjoyed by guest pianist Hélène Grimaud and Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in their performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 on Thursday at the Kimmel Center. It’s not some publicity thing: Their rapport is real and especially apparent in Beethoven’s most spiritually evolved and musically distilled piano concerto.
The evidence of this partnership went well beyond precision, showing two distinct personalities not so much finding common ground as establishing complementary sympathy on a deep level.
Philadelphians have heard Grimaud play this Beethoven concerto in years past, in performances that were satisfying but that can hardly be compared to what she is doing now. At 48, she’s getting down to musical essentials.
Certain Grimaud-isms from her earlier, firebrand years are gone — such as agitated articulation of left-hand accompaniment figures. On Thursday, Beethoven’s brief, simple opening piano entrance was like a multipart soliloquy. The first-movement cadenza continued in that vein (along with unexpected flashes of humor) but with more richness to come.
In the second movement, stark orchestral chords seem to bully the quieter piano writing, in what has long been compared to Orpheus confronting the demons of the underworld.
From that starting point, Grimaud and Nézet-Séguin seemed to be working with a number of subtexts. The piano kept the orchestra at bay by speaking unabridged truth, with musical elaborations that suggested, “You must hear all of this!”
Then, with an interesting emphasis on the double-basses in the orchestral texture, piano and orchestra arrived at a point of communion, ending with the orchestra cradling the piano with a sense of quiet tragedy recalling Michelangelo’s Pieta.
If it’s possible to speak volumes in a single note, Grimaud did so in the movement’s final seconds, first by delaying the harmonic conclusion and then by coloring the note with a sound distinct from everything else that has come from her coloristic palette. Yes, it was quite a performance.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in the second half was much the opposite — a spontaneous, high-spirited, noncontemplative performance showing what a conductor and orchestra can create in the heat of the moment. It was also charmingly messy, with moments when Nézet-Séguin didn’t seem entirely sure what option he wanted, yielding some unsteady pacing, though nothing serious.
The starting point of Nézet-Séguin‘s approach seemed to be the instrumentation: Its restless morphing dictated the music’s meaning from the bottom up. Such meaning is there for the discovering, though Nézet-Séguin uncovered much by doing away with the suave sheen the symphony acquired over the 20th century — thanks to orchestras like Philadelphia’s.
Now, the Philadelphia Orchestra will take or leave superficial gloss, in keeping with the needs of the music. That’s not just the mark of a great orchestra but one with a cultivated sense of artistic responsibility. Dvorak’s infrequently played Othello overture started the concert — not memorably.
In an important postscript, three retirements were announced: associate principal flute David Cramer, associate principal percussionist Anthony Orlando, and principal oboist Richard Woodhams. Also, the C. Hartman Kuhn Award, given to an orchestra member “who has shown ability and enterprise of such character as to enhance the standards and the reputation of the ensemble,” went to assistant principal bassist Joseph Conyers, who has been acclaimed for setting new standards with his instrument and who works extensively with school-age children.
The Philadelphia Orchestra program will be repeated at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $84-$183. Information: 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.