Paul Lewis joined the New York Philharmonic for a performance of Edvard Grieg's ever-popular Piano Concerto under the direction of his compatriot Daniel Harding. Although Lewis’s impressive technique and youthful ardor were apparent throughout the performance, he hyped up the dramatic character of strong passages with over-emphatic attacks and rigid articulation, especially in the principal themes of the outer movements. This approach contrasted markedly with his nuanced, delicate and rhapsodic treatment of the lyrical material. Lewis’s light touch and flexible phrasing generated a sensitive reading of the middle movement without either sacrificing smooth even pacing or encumbering the melodic line with distracting affectations. The finale was a tour de force – a showcase for Lewis’s note-perfect display of rapid figuration played at breakneck speed. The soft lyrical passages were romanticized with sensitive expressivity and the heroic nationalism of the concluding andante maestoso was forceful and dynamic, even if it seemed somewhat out of place given how much of the finale was devoted to intensified bravura.
The frequency of performances of Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony has increased during the past decade or so. The musical establishment at one time found the symphony to be too cinematographic to be taken seriously. Its stylized theatrical elements enhanced with creative orchestration were thought to be too descriptive, sounding too much like ‘mere’ film music. Gradually, audiences have not only come to relish Strauss’s brilliantly devised affects but have looked beyond them to the philosophical nature of the work that envisions the heights to which we might aspire in our life’s journey symbolized by a day’s climb up and down an Alpine mountain.
Music like this requires not only enormous dramatic power, heightened technical precision, and a sensitive treatment of orchestral coloration, but also a comprehensive structure that makes the diverse sections seem both cohesive and naturally progressive, with enough space and time to effectively elicit their remarkably inventive and brilliantly picturesque character.
For the most part, Harding’s effort to generate structural cohesiveness was so tightly wrought that sections had little time to elicit any meaningful impact. His hurried pacing, lasting until the closing moments, underplayed the dramatic character of the music to a fault. Segments flashed by on some predetermined schedule for each ‘stop’. Harding thereby undercut both the special effects Strauss sought to produce, and downplayed the symphony’s conceptual framework. Too many of the individual segments, that Strauss neatly tied together, whizzed by with such impressed speed as to impede the effect of their descriptive nuances, a characteristic that had devastating consequences for the apex of the this symmetrical structure, the segments marked ‘On the Summit’ and ‘Vision’.
When given sufficient breadth to transmit their Nietzschean ‘message’ of human potentiality, these passages can linger in the spirit long after the work concludes. Even the storm scene, with its thunderous outbursts, was rather underwhelming. Only toward the denouement, after the storm had passed and the Sun began to set for the journey downward with the approach of ‘Night’, did Harding allow the music more time and space to produce the effect of a gradual descent into night, depicted musically as at the beginning. So at least this thrilling day’s journey ended as it should have, even if the brilliantly contrived descriptive effects and the grandeur of Strauss’s vision that are the sum and substance of this great work did not leave a lasting impression.
The NYP played with its usual proficiency but seemed both uninvolved and rather tame at the highpoints, thereby weakening the dramatic effect that can be overwhelming if given its due.