When guest violinist Isabelle Faust stepped forward to play an applause-warranted encore on Thursday at the Kimmel Center, you sensed that it was a test along the lines of "Just how much do you want this - really?"
Already, the German violinist - making her debut with the orchestra after Julia Fischer canceled - had established herself as having a somewhat demure violin sound for a piece as heroic as the Brahms Violin Concerto, especially as played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition, her choice of encore was odd: Bach's Sonata No. 3 for unaccompanied violin - not one of the animated movements, but the spacious, quiet, pause-punctuated "Largo."
After your ears adjusted to this spare sound world, you began noticing the graceful logic with which the different voices dovetailed and how Faust's phrases revealed the music's content over the long term, rather than making a momentary effect. This was a more characteristic statement of her art than what had been heard in the Brahms.
That's not to downgrade what she and conductor Charles Dutoit accomplished in the concerto, which wasn't all-around satisfying but had specific if limited beauties. Dutoit brings distinctive instrumental blends to Brahms, with tempos that have golden-mean solidity. But such tempos weren't necessarily Faust's; after the first movement's orchestral introduction, she entered with her inner metronome clicking rather faster.
The first impression was that of a musical hijacking. Then the concerto was a like posh car whose accelerator was pushed to the floor. Away it went, with Faust playing a bit too hard to maintain a consistently good tone, and in any case, still overshadowed at times by the orchestra. All of the tender, reflective moments went well for her, sometimes with a near-clairvoyant insight into the music's rhetorical content. Later performances will perhaps have more common ground between soloist and orchestra.
The other big piece on the program, Honegger's Symphony No. 3 ("Liturgical"), probably can't get any better. As much as I've known and loved the piece, never have I heard it played with such clarity and conviction. Orchestra and conductor were 100 percent engaged by the music, whose polytonal parts intentionally fail to fit, in a heterogeneity that can sound merely quirky but here became profound.
Each of the movements has a basis in hymns and chants. And though the second movement is said to be about redemption, I heard all manner of musical dualities being resolved in miraculous instants - sour to sweet, dark to light, cold isolation to warm intimacy. The entire symphony is excellent, but this middle movement is one of the jewels of 20th-century music.