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.