The Philadelphia Orchestra may be in the news more often for its financial difficulties than for its music-making, but even a fleeting listen to one of their concerts demonstrates that the ensemble remains one of America’s gems. While the string section no longer has the plush, rich string sound cultivated under Stokowski and Ormandy, the Fabulous Philadelphians produced a striking variety of colors on a program of Brahms, Webern, and Schumann last Friday at Carnegie Hall.

At the helm was Sir Simon Rattle, the energetic music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra clearly enjoys working with him, judged from their smiles and wagging bows as he made his entrance. For each piece, Rattle and the orchestra produced an entirely different sound world, entering into the idiom of each work rather than playing everything with all-purpose efficiency. It was almost as if a different orchestra played each work.

Rattle’s vision of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is lush and legato. His expansive approach was well-paced, balancing forward motion with the innigkeit (inward-lookingness) that sets the Brahms symphonies apart. The Philadelphians responded with exemplary ensemble playing, as phrases bounced between sections in passages that can make even experienced groups sound ragged. Eight double basses and ten cellos provided an unusually rich, deep foundation for the orchestra’s sound.

The only questionable aspect of Rattle’s interpretation was his frequent choice to subdue the reiteration or development of a phrase in a counterintuitive way not found in the score. On occasion, he would shape a phrase by suddenly drawing it down to pianissimo and letting it grow. The extreme pianissimo effect did have its benefits, however, especially in places such as the entrance of the woodwinds for the second theme in the second movement. Throughout the piece, Rattle was sensitive to the hierarchy of lines within the rich texture, bringing out subsidiary phrases often ignored in other performances. The final movement was filled with excitement, making the quiet ending even more of a surprise.

The audience wasn’t ready for Webern’s Six Pieces, Op. 6 at the top of the second half, with numerous patrons scampering back to their seats while Rattle waited at the podium. Once settled, the orchestra opened up to a haunting performance of Opus 6. Written after the death of his mother, the 13-minute work ranges from the fragmented gestures characteristic of Webern’s style to the fourth movement’s immense, crushing crescendo—a Mahlerian funeral march compressed into a few short minutes. During passages in which silence is the dominant effect, every note counts, and the orchestra played with complete concentration. Even though this work employed the largest number of players on the program, the luxuriant sound of the Brahms was gone, replaced by razor-sharp clarity and acerbic timbres: growling muted trumpets contrasted with a solo viola lament, a snare drum roll over soft chimes, like a distant execution, and a bass drum knell with low chimes, played at a nearly inaudible pianissimo. The piece was over before you knew it, leaving a hushed remembrance in its wake.

Despite their attractive melodies, Schumann’s four symphonies occupy a lower rung in the popularity ranks of concert programming. This may be due to his thick orchestration, in which the entire orchestra plays together for most of the piece. Melodic lines can be hard to locate in the texture. But in Rattle’s hands, the layered phrases of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) were clear, bright, and carefree. The orchestra used slightly fewer forces than in the rest of the program, and sometimes took on the timbral quality of a period-instrument group: hard sticks to play the timpani, and string playing without vibrato in the fourth movement.

The first movement was noticeably faster than the standard stately performance, appropriately breathing life into the composer’s marking of Lebhaft. The rustic second movement kept a tone of elegance and at times, humor. While Schumann’s writing for the French horn is not as prominent as Brahms’ memorable solos for the instrument, it is even more virtuosic. Passages in the second and fourth movements stretch into the stratosphere, and principal hornist Jennifer Montone navigated the heights with ease.

The introspective third movement was a play on meandering themes that run into each other – a technique further developed by Schumann’s student, Brahms. The fourth movement is a majestic chorale inspired by Cologne’s cathedral. Musicologist Donald Francis Tovey called it “one of the finest examples of ecclesiastical polyphony since Bach,” and Rattle performed in a Bachian manner, stripping the violins of vibrato and emphasizing clarity of counterpoint. The symphony finished with a jubilant, toe-tapping finale, with Rattle fostering some controlled chaos in the rollicking coda.