What a pleasure it is to hear the orchestra back in the Academy of Music. That’s a simple idea, maybe. But the Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t return to its former hall all that often. And while there’s no arguing that Verizon Hall has the superior acoustic, there are nights when velvety atmosphere seems more crucial than modern efficiency.
Thursday’s concert was such a night, especially since the repertoire the orchestra brought to its ancestral home was itself so atmospheric. Violinist Lisa Batiashvili was on hand in not just one but two shimmering concertos, and those works plus Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead were being recorded for release on the Deutsche Grammophon label.
Remember when the orchestra would go to great lengths to record anywhere but the Academy? The sound in the hall was dry, the orchestra explained often and for decades. It’s true — it was, and it is. So what’s changed?
These concerts were originally supposed to take place in September 2020, said Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, “and we finally were able to reschedule, by which time we had already moved this week into the Academy of Music [for the orchestra’s regular annual return to the old theater]. This hall’s sound is in the orchestra’s DNA as well, and so the academy fits the orchestra like a glove acoustically.”
The label is happy with the sounds it captured Thursday, he said.
In any case, recording engineers should have no trouble producing a convincing recording if Batiashvili’s performance with the orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin is any gauge. The Chausson Poème was the less persuasive of the two works she performed. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with it except perhaps that there are so many great takes on the favorite already out there.
Her conviction in Szymanowski’s dreamy, constantly shifting Violin Concerto No. 1 was striking. It’s as much a work for orchestra as for the soloist, and there are stretches in the score (from 1916) when the orchestral texture is so fevered and thick, you might think the violinist would be swamped. But Batiashvili triumphed, often soaring above the ensemble on a web of high notes as beautiful in tone as they were clear. She was especially impressive in a cadenza that switched between ghostly and devilish. Horn player Jeffrey Lang had a welcome intimacy and immediacy in his solos.
The orchestra has been on a Rachmaninoff survey for several years now, and The Isle of the Dead is probably the darkest of entries they’ll end up recording. It also holds the most varied hues of orchestral color, an aspect that glinted and rumbled in this ensemble’s hands. Other conductors hear longer stretches of music before reaching a climax than Nézet-Séguin, who moved quickly and seemed to be constantly reaching for the next buildup. It’s not an approach I particularly loved.
The conductor, though, has a good sense of the passion inherent in the work — soaring first violins, cellos that are nearly Wagnerian — and also its unsettled nature. The piece pulses with an unusual five beats per measure, and if that’s not unsettling enough, it switches back and forth in the way each measure is subdivided (two beats, then three in some place; three beats, then two in others). This is music that rocks like a boat, but you’re never quite sure when it might rock too far.
Additional performance: Saturday at 8 p.m. in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$161. philorch.org, 215-893-1999.