For this traditionally formatted program, the New York Philharmonic welcomed Thomas Dausgaard, honorary conductor of the Danish National Symphony, conductor laureate of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony, and designate music director of the Seattle Symphony. He was replacing Zubin Mehta, his indisposition also removing Webern and Schubert.
Carl Nielsen composed Helios Overture in 1903 while vacationing with his wife in Greece. Emerging from a hushed atmosphere, horn-calls evoke a sense of the immutable greatness of ancient Greece. Trumpet flourishes build to a magnificent climax, ushering in an allegro section in which vibrant and energetic passages contrast with bedazzling lyricism. This is home territory for Dausgaard, who led a vigorous performance that gloried in resilient brass and sonorous strings. He shaped lyrical material exquisitely while maintaining a spirited pace, retaining inner tension, even during softer passages.
Stephen Hough delivered a forceful, dynamic reading of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, his flawless technique and natural manner of expressivity occasionally spiced with artfully drawn nuances so lightly wrought that they enhanced rather than detracted from the flow of the music, all bolstered by Hough’s elegant manner. The slow movement began as if a dream, radiating a luminescence that was enriched by Hough’s delicate, supple touch as he glided effortlessly over the keys. An energetic spirit drove forward the Finale relentlessly without losing control of the principal tempo. Dausgaard shaped phrases brilliantly while allowing Hough to emerge without sounding strained.
In Schumann’s Second Symphony, Dausgaard was simply masterful. He elicited a deeply etched, vividly drawn, and impressively detailed reading the like of which is rarely offered these days, the Philharmonic players adhering to his every direction without the least hesitation. It is always difficult for a conductor to accomplish much when leading an orchestra for the first time, no matter how talented he or she may be or how much rehearsal time is made available. In this respect, Dausgaard’s rendering of this sometimes problematic score succeeded from first to last.
Some of the more notable characteristics of his vital and penetrating conception were its reverberant dramatic power heightened by resilient thrust and parry; dynamic tutti passages; superbly shaped phrasing, virtually ever-present underlying tension sometimes bordering on agitation (particularly apparent in the Berlioz-like Scherzo); refined yet expressive lyricism (transfiguring the rhapsodic melody of the Adagio); the vitality that energized the Finale; as well as extraordinarily insightful exposure of important inner voices all-too-often buried. All this was apparent in an essentially straightforward reading that sought to enrich the score rather than litter it with excessive exaggerations that can unduly tug at the musical line.