The Haydn was full of rhythmic edge and fire, the Beethoven controlled but expressive. Wagner was all about the narrative.
Of course, it takes the right storyteller to explain what’s really going on in the music, and Wednesday night in Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra had a master. It’s pretty plain that Fabio Luisi is the most sophisticated conductor to regularly visit this podium these days. Music to him is a multidimensional pursuit, and you could hear all the parts operating on the highest level in this ecstatic concert.
His most striking tools are pacing and color, and though you might not immediately see on paper what a Haydn symphony, a Beethoven piano concerto, and a worshipped Wagner excerpt had in common, Luisi made an astute connection in the way all three have the orchestra whispering in the most tender voice possible.
As an expressive mode, it had the magical effect of making you feel you were eavesdropping on something personal and specific.
The concerto was especially personal for Yefim Bronfman, who in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor was stentorian, for sure, but also lingeringly delicate in all the right places. Expressive and authoritative, he took to manipulating a phase just this much (the main theme of the last movement) only when there was a good point to be made.
It was the second movement, though, that captured my heart in the way Bronfman and the orchestra players matched their oft-exposed parts color for color.
You might not expect color to be the thing that puts Haydn over the top, but by drawing specific shades, especially from the strings, Luisi made individual sections of the ensemble pop in the Symphony No. 104, “London.” That it all fell within the lines of generally fast tempos and driving momentum made us wonder who this firebrand composer really was.
In the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde, Luisi — who was principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera through the 2016-17 season — found story, of course, though it might not have been the one we expected. Many conductors use waves of longing and prolongation. And Luisi did, too, but just in the Prelude. The “Liebestod” was all about release. Death achieved, the something better that followed rushed forth. His pacing in the Prelude, however, was stunning, especially the way he went headlong into the climax and then left pale death in its wake.
The orchestra is a finely calibrated powerhouse when Luisi is here, and to have this sort of artistic experience more often could only be good for everyone. With Stéphane Denève, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, becoming music director of the St. Louis Symphony and Charles Dutoit conductor non grata, there is movement on the roster. A series of complicated factors (many nonmusical) go into hiring a new principal guest conductor, but chief among them should still be whether you want a force for keeping the ensemble at the highest level. That box is checked.
Additional performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Friday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$146. www.philorch.org, 215-893-1999.