This is truly a checkered schedule:
The Philadelphia Orchestra has two programs with pianist Helene Grimaud this week and next, interspersed with performances of Puccini's Tosca plus preparations for the forthcoming Europe/Israel tour (of which protesters outside the Kimmel Center are a constant reminder). Wisely, the Thursday program was a fairly unfancy preview of what will be played on tour, Grimaud in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Schumann Symphony No. 4. Grimaud is among Brahms' best advocates. The Schumann 4th, played as recently as March, is becoming a fallback piece that's both impressive and portable (not requiring special instrumentation).
Nézet-Séguin showed few signs of being a future Schumann specialist before recording the composer's four symphonies in 2014 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. But now he is. The composer's Symphony No. 4 sported the trademark Philadelphia sheen but with a growing comfort with the fleet tempos that Nézet-Séguin has helped popularize in what may be a more historically responsible view of the music. Yet the Symphony No. 4 is an unlikely tour choice; it lacks a certain wow factor in contrast to the musical-diary quality of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 or the atmospheric journey of Symphony No. 3. At least that's what I thought walking in.
Thursday's performance was out to dazzle and definitely succeeded, leaving the impression that the piece is one breathless scherzo. All four movements came out in what felt like a single continuous exhalation, though not without details. What can seem like a musical afterthought became its own micro-movement. The music's gestures were clean, sharp, and articulate. A few minimally messy entrances told you why pre-tour warmup programs are necessary, though local audiences shouldn't feel like they're getting second best because they heard good playing without experiencing European jet lag.
The imposing but open-hearted Brahms concerto hadn't yet settled. Evidence of Grimaud's authority with the piece were everywhere; her evolution since her 1998 recording has been that of finding an infinitely wider emotional world in the piece's every avenue, her distinctive phrase shaping and subtle rubato giving the music great specificity. In her best moments, Grimaud speaks to the audience through Brahms. Her arresting wall-of-sound sonority is used more sparingly. She finds strangeness in mere transitional passages — appropriate as this is relatively early, uncodified Brahms. The slow movement is usually where Grimaud truly lives, but as much as it flapped its wings on Thursday, it never truly took off — amid an unusually noisy audience that was a distraction for listeners and possibly for Grimaud. The final movement is safe territory; listeners always respond to it and did here. Later audiences are likely to hear something more fully realized. And knowing what Grimaud can do on a better day, her Brahms may be worth European jet lag.