New York Philharmonic/Maazel – A Richard Strauss Cornucopia with Philip Myers

Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.11
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Philip Myers (horn)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 20 October, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliLorin Maazel concluded his first guest-conductor stint at the New York Philharmonic since stepping down as music director in 2009. This Richard Strauss program may aptly be described as a cornucopia, both for its bountiful musical content and because it featured ‘horns-aplenty’.

An Alpine Symphony, the last and most ambitious of Strauss’s symphonic poems, is scored for an orchestra of more than 120 musicians, including a twelve-player off-stage ensemble of horns, trumpets and trombones, a wide array of percussion instruments, as well as two harps, celesta and organ. Among the additional musicians brought in to supplement the Philharmonic’s regular roster was Harry Searing, who played the heckelphone, a sort of bass oboe that Strauss uses to add Heft to his depictions of night and a thunderstorm, among other events in a mountain-climber’s day-long ascent and descent in the Alps.

Despite Avery Fisher Hall’s less-than-ideal acoustics, the Philharmonic’s sound was, for the most part, quite impressive. The strings were clearly defined, the winds pungent, and the brass resonant, with textures only occasionally muddled. The impact of the large array of bass instruments – including nine double basses, two bass tubas, four trombones, four Wagner tubas (in addition to four horns), four bassoons, contrabassoon, bass clarinet and the heckelphone – was particularly powerful, and even the electronic organ came through with a satisfying sound. Maazel seamlessly effected appropriate changes of mood as the music progressed through each of the twenty-two events demarcated in the score, beginning before dawn and ending after nightfall. There were peaceful moments and chaotic ones, with evocations of nature from shimmering aquatic strings, chirping avian woodwinds, and howling wind and crashing thunderclaps from the percussion. Milking the most dramatic passages for all they are worth, Maazel skillfully managed the gradual build-up from night to dawn, making the bright, major-key emergence of the sunrise a spectacular moment. Then, when the dozen-strong cellos’ introduction of the climber’s motif was interrupted by a hunting party positioned behind and above the audience, the perspective came off perfectly. Also effective were the climber’s attainment of the summit (with eight horns making a marvelous sound), the ensuing ‘Vision’, introduced by brilliant trumpets, and the dramatic approach and outbreak of a storm as the hiker descends. Maazel maintained an air of suspended animation as the sun set and daylight gradually faded into night, and even after the final, deep chord had completely died away, the audience maintained a respectful silence before applauding.

After intermission, NYP principal Philip Myers played the First Horn Concerto with a lustrous sound and impressive agility on a modern horn – not a valve-less Waldhorn as impossibly specified in the work’s title. In this polished performance, the concerto, composed by Strauss the teenager, seemed much closer to its Mozartean roots – especially in the finale – than to what would soon become the composer’s characteristic, and far more eclectic, style.

The concert ended with a rollicking traversal of Till Eulenspiegel, in which Myers was again in the forefront, voicing the motif that represents the eponymous trickster. Maazel took full advantage of the large orchestral forces to emphasize the percussive and bombastic episodes, although the more frivolous and delicate ones were also given their due. The strings played with brilliance and clarity, with excellent solos from concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and his fellow string principals, and the expanded wind section acquitted itself superbly, with trumpets – and horns, of course – also making fine contributions.

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