French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras might have initially looked like a rerun: He played Haydn's mid-weight Cello Concerto in C in 2008 with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, even though an artist of his stature warrants a rather more grand musical platform.
Or so it seemed until he actually played, reprising the concerto Thursday with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
One of Europe's top cellists, Queyras makes this infrequent U.S. appearance on the heels of a memorable collaboration abroad with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who wanted to repeat the experience for Philadelphia. The surprises were how Queyras has changed, and how substantial the concerto is when given more time and attention.
Long allied with the historically informed performance camp, Queyras has gone so much further in that direction that he now seems like a different cellist. Tone is as focused and unforced as ever. But his always-elegant phrasing now moves with less vibrato and more fluidity. Even ornaments were more integrated into the flow. Any potential loss of surface excitement was offset by Nézet-Séguin's accompaniment, creating such a fusion of energy that the fleet final movement was more scintillating than I thought possible.
The purely orchestral ends of the program needed to be separated by Haydn because they stood at such polar opposites. Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, heard in the orchestral suite that gives the most complete overview of the opera, was conducting with such relish you wondered if Nézet-Séguin is laying the groundwork for a complete concert performance. Beyond the sumptuous sonorities, Nézet-Séguin explored the characterizations within the music, particularly schmaltzing up the waltz passages since they're sung by the opera's most boorish character during delusional dreams of refinement. However it registered on anybody's taste meter, the performance was a heap of fun.
Brahms is still uncertain territory for Nézet-Séguin, and his performance of the Symphony No. 3 did not really find its legs until the end of the first movement. If you believe the piece's most arresting music is in each movement's coda, Nézet-Séguin might agree, because that's where the performance kicked up a few notches. Also, he observed the first-movement repeat - an architectural touch that counts for much with Brahmsians.