The holiday season in New York can be a bit maddening, an unrelenting assault to the senses amid the crush of humanity present throughout the city. Luckily, then, the Philharmonic provided an evening’s respite with powerful and largely understated works by Haydn, Schubert, and Ravel. After Haydn’s Symphony no. 88 in G major, conductor Alan Gilbert and his players were joined by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter for a set of Schubert Lieder, transcribed from their original piano accompaniments for the orchestra by Benjamin Britten and Max Reger. The second half featured two works of Ravel, the complete ballet score Ma Mère l’Oye and La Valse.

Both halves of the program wisely paired a lighthearted work with one (or several) of greater gravity. While the Haydn could have sparkled more in the fast outer movements and been more buoyant in the Largo, its carefree character was the perfect apéritif to the depth of Schubert. Mr. Gilbert emphasized hemiolas and punchy entrances in the Minuet, and brought to the fore a long open-fifth drone, highlighting the earthy and jovial quality of this movement.

After the wit and charm of Haydn came the weight of Schubert in the form of six of his masterful songs. These Lieder were performed tonight as arranged by Britten and Reger, two of the innumerable later composers who revered Schubert, and hardly the only ones to arrange his works (there are no fewer than three other symphonic versions of Erlkönig, for instance). The piano parts to Schubert’s songs are so visionary in their conception – one hears other instruments so clearly in listening to them – that they seem almost like musical jigsaw puzzles, waiting to be set into their one “correct” alignment in the orchestra. When Reger assigns notes to the timpani that comment on the first two vocal statements in Gretchen am Spinnrade (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”), you can almost hear the ghost of Schubert chiming in, “Obviously!” Likewise the repeated notes of Erlkönig are clearly better-suited to string instruments than piano octaves. There are of course passages that could be dealt with in several different ways, the opening runs of Die Forelle (“The Trout”) among them (played by the clarinet in Britten’s version), but the arrangements on this program were of such quality that even those less-redundant orchestrations were always convincing and fresh.

These songs, as with most of Schubert’s vocal output, are mainly strophic, repeating the same (or nearly identical) musical material for each verse of text. Ms. von Otter was upright and elegant in her interpretations, always inhabiting that elusive region of expression between straightforward and overdone, a feat of incredible subtlety. Her natural ease was a good match for Mr. Gilbert’s understated polish.

The same approach to programming worked especially well in juxtaposing the works by Ravel, both of which started as two-piano scores and were only later fleshed out for orchestra. (Indeed, posterity owes a great debt to Ravel’s publisher Jacques Durand, who convinced the composer to orchestrate Ma Mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose”). Ravel intended La Valse to be orchestral, but only incidentally premièred it in the two-piano form.) Mr. Gilbert led a patient reading of Ma Mère l’Oye, with a wonderful sense of proportion and highly organic changes in color and mood. The Philharmonic played with a unified, chamber quality, preserving the music’s intimacy with an attention to detail that elevated the score from potentially simplistic to exquisite. For all the loud and fast pieces in the repertoire, an orchestra whose conductor can coax such delicate poignancy out of his ensemble is truly in good hands.

This is not to say, however, that anything was taken for granted in the more crowd-pleasing La Valse. The first measures were almost impossible to define aurally; you could feel the audience collectively leaning in, straining to hear as the work began out of nothing. Arguably, this piece, written in the aftermath of World War I, represents the decadence of fin de siècle central Europe being carried too far, as epitomized by the waltz. Ravel described its “fantastic, fatal whirling,” and while he would later refute the sociopolitical interpretation, there is a brutality and loss of control to the ending that makes it clear that this work is no simple indulgence. Mr. Gilbert kept this climax unexpected, and its violence was all the more shocking that way, an exciting close to an inspiring evening.