The British conductor, 54, whose full-time job is leading the Berlin Philharmonic, also keeps the best of company in soloists. Imogen Cooper brought a suave athleticism to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major (K. 503). It helped that Rattle continually adjusted the volume of the strings, making them duck under the sound of the piano at key moments. Revealed was a pianist with a fairly romantic view of the piece, using rubato liberally but smartly. Articulation and color were agile servants, so that not a single phrase passed from Cooper's hands without being imbued with some form of emotional meaning. She is highly individual, but not mannered or self-conscious.
It might be hard to substantiate this feeling, but it's an important one to recognize: Cooper achieves that rare affect in her playing that she is creating something personal and maybe even private. You just happened by at the right moment.
In addition to a close curatorial watch on sound production, Rattle carried an important concept from the Mozart to the Bruckner. He knows that the best phrasing (very often, at least) is that which emulates the rise and fall of human speech patterns. The Bruckner seemed to talk at points, reaching, in the first movement, past its lurching tectonic plates and morbid dissonance. It might have spilled out simply disjointed, but through pacing and marking out structural arrival points, Rattle translated it all into a terrifying, convincing discourse on struggle and fragility.
The finale, embedded with brilliant solos by oboist Richard Woodhams and concertmaster David Kim, was marvelously bellicose.
But the Wagnerian third movement was a world unto itself. This painfully beautiful half-hour essay on prolongation is extremely meaningful to Bruckner fans - "one of the great achievements of the 19th century," critic Paul J. Horsley reminds us in the program note. There are times when orchestra and conductor are acting so confidently as single organism, and the music aches so powerfully for something outside itself, that they chase away the physical place around you and all thoughts of daily life.
This was one of those moments. For the elusiveness of Rattle, as much as the music itself, it was enough to make you want to cry.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.
Additional performance: Tonight at 8 at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$125. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.