It started out as a charging bull, this Brahms
Symphony No. 1
the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Thursday night in its last subscription series of the season. Christoph Eschenbach was angry, beautifully so, for about the first 30 seconds.
The intensity didn't sustain itself for the duration of the movement, or even the duration of its opening gust, but what followed was a Brahms 1 that was expressive and confident, and that never undermined itself by becoming overly fussy.
Eschenbach and the orchestra tend to do well in repertoire that the ensemble already knows like the back of its hand, and if there's a piece that qualifies, this is it. It lends an ease to the relationship when no one is particularly dependent on cues and beat patterns.
In the pastoral second movement, that mood of general contentment was particularly beneficial to the woodwinds, with oboist Richard Woodhams and clarinetist Ricardo Morales the authors of floating, delicate phrasing. The trombones were a plummy choir of solidity. And if one might have hoped for more crispness to the repeating triplet figure in the first movement, or a less sloppy final climax in the last, there were many moments of great pleasure in between.
The orchestra brings the Brahms on a U.S. tour that starts Tuesday with Mozart and Tchaikovsky in Kansas City, and by Saturday puts them in Davis, Calif., with baritone Matthias Goerne in a group of Schubert songs orchestrated by various composers.
On the orchestra's first outing with the songs in Verizon Hall Thursday it was often hard to decide where to focus one's attention - on the magnificent Goerne, or on listening for how Brahms, Webern and Reger assigned to other instruments lines we're used to hearing in the piano.
Webern introduced something rather treacherous by poking through a texture with the jagged edge of a muted horn in "Der Wegweiser" from Winterreise, D. 911, No. 20; Reger gave the fast-moving rhythmic figure of the famous "Der Erlkönig" to a distant rumbling timpani at one point.
What was so striking about Goerne, at least on this night, was his natural, unaffected, gorgeous tone. It's not quite right to say that he has a simple sound, but it is uncluttered by excess vibrato and is unfailingly clear. In a way, it's conversational, which is just one of the avenues by which his emotional message travels easily to the listener.
Two more Schubert songs came as encores: Offenbach's orchestration of "Ständchen" from the Schwanengesang, D. 957 No. 4; and Reger's orchestration of "An die Musik," D. 547.
"An die Musik" will be for me one of the season's high points, in part because of the piece itself, featuring one of those marvelous Schubert chord progressions that, to be technical, is a short string of secondary dominants, and to be poetical, causes an irrational sense of hope.
But to have a voice like Goerne singing all this softly into your ear is a powerfully paradoxical sensation - intimacy in the company of 2,500.