Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor who got away, returned Thursday for one of his periodic guest dates, and his relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which courted him breathlessly for its music directorship prior to his 1999 Berlin Philharmonic appointment, was all it has ever been (which is a lot).
No particularly sexy programming this time, just Germanic masterpieces with the orchestra playing at something close to its peak and Rattle with his characteristic combination of strategy, intellectualism, and heat. Nobody should be surprised that his Brahms Symphony No. 3 at Verizon Hall was more convincing than the somewhat self-conscious recording he made only a few years ago with the Berlin Philharmonic. As great as he can be in Berlin, his work here tends to have a sense that the orchestra is taking his ideas a step further — important with a conductor known to overthink his interpretations. So often in the Berlin Brahms set, it's as if the players are skeptically asking, "Is this what you want?" In Philadelphia, you sense that the players are saying, "This is what you want" — even if the orchestra's horn section wasn't having its best night.
The symphony seemed stuffed with content — lots of simultaneous elements and many episodes within its episodes. Its songfulness, not just in its tunes but in the way ideas are repeated like verses, had different phrasing in each iteration. Often, Rattle began such a sequence with a sudden retreat into quietude, giving even short passages room to build. This technique could easily have become mannered without the sense of sweep provided by the orchestra, assuring that such details would not steal focus from the larger picture.
Rattle's treatment of the Schumann Symphony No. 3 ("Rhenish") felt like a work in progress, but so do many Schumann symphonic performances. Though the best of the composer's four, this one is like a collection of five tone poems, each with its own sound world, that can cohere as a single symphony. But any single overarching concept can come at the expense of the individual movements. Rattle's fleet, light-textured, almost classical-era approach — like Arturo Toscanini — ensured that nothing would be lugubrious and repetitive. This approach was good for the levity of the second, third, and fifth movements. Elsewhere, the first movement, a panorama of the Rhine River, lacked a bit of exalted grandeur, and the fourth movement's evocation of the Cologne Cathedral (the composer's single most innovative moment) had less gravity.
The best performance was the Six Pieces for Orchestra by Anton Webern, one of the few serialists whose work can be analyzed by ear but loses the most if you do. This strictly ordered music can seethe under its surface. Nagging rhythms that sound merely impertinent in some performances became hostile under Rattle — but not through application of force. This performance was about color, wrought with intensely defined precision. Thus, each of these short pieces became a collage of musical objects — with implied social relevance. Each piece was a study in isolated entities, in an uncomfortable coexistence that could end at any time. And in the volcanic fourth piece: Was that perhaps the sound of Western civilization coming to an end?
Additional performances: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.