Christoph Eschenbach's all-Schubert final subscription concert as Philadelphia Orchestra music director was neither daring nor fail-safe. But it was certainly a reminder of what an individualistic musical thinker the community is losing, and of how resourceful he can be - at least during this final run of concerts - at channeling the orchestra's best qualities into something well beyond the luxury of its sound.

The pairing of Schubert's

Symphony No. 8

("Unfinished")

and

No. 9

("Great")

is commonly found on compact disc but can seem like too much of the same greatness in concert. Yet the Thursday performance at the Kimmel Center was a rich illustration of the similarities and progression of symphonic thought by a composer who died at 31, just as he was truly learning how to express all he was in this medium. Earlier Schubert symphonies are nice, lightweight works; it wasn't until the

8th

and

9th

that he successfully ventured into longer spans of music, with an intensity of expression that only Beethoven theretofore had attempted.

Eschenbach's approach to these works was the opposite of historically informed performance. That school of interpretation can give a needed transparency to the large blocks of sound in the

9th

, but Schubert's most ambitious works weren't heard in their own time (these symphonies waited a decade or more after his death for their premieres) and thus can be said to exist outside of any chronological evolution. So there's a good case to be made for Eschenbach's view, which was showing what Schubert's late symphonies said to the future - and it was more than I'd guessed.

The bass opening of the

"Unfinished" Symphony

took on a subterranean rumble that Wagner perhaps seized upon for the famous opening of his opera

Das Rheingold

. The

9th Symphony

's first movement achieved the cumulative effect of short, exclamatory motifs that became so much a part of the Bruckner aesthetic. The second movement of the

9th

had extremes of refined string sound and robust wind playing, positioning high art next to the vernacular in ways that became more pronounced in Mahler's symphonies. The march-into-the-abyss second movement of the

9th

also impacted Mahler.

Such performances weren't just instructive. However unfinished, Schubert's

8th

was hardly incomplete as an emotional experience. Virtually every note, even humble accompaniment figures, was mined for possible emotional impact. That meant tempos were on the slow side. The emotional center of Thursday's performance came early in the second movement when the strings took on an incredibly rarefied sound in the character of an apotheosis, around which the rest of the movement fell into place. The overall symphony emerged as a two-movement diptych not unlike Mahler's

Symphony No. 8

(that ends with Faust's soul ascending into heaven).

Schubert's

9th

naturally warranted a wider range of gesture, and got it, with the Philadelphia sound put to especially good use. Inner chord voices were never obscured, thanks to a clear, focused sonority (a bit like the Cleveland Orchestra's) that gave more analytical listeners a cross section of any given musical moment. In other words, the performance had everything.

A Farewell Concert

Christoph Eschenbach will be joined by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and special guest artist mezzo Rinat Shaham in a farewell chamber concert tomorrow in Verizon Hall at 3 p.m. Tickets:

$19 to $29. Information: 215-893-1999 or

.

Coming Sunday

Inquirer music critics David Patrick Stearns and Peter Dobrin assess Christoph Eschenbach's five years as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in tomorrow's Arts & Entertainment section.

H1

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.