Richard Strauss’ salute to nature - Eine Alpensinfonie - made for the perfect complimentary second half in this exciting and programmatic program. The violin concerto depicts the wanderings and tribulations of a 17th century violin over the course of three hundred years, the central theme being the maker’s doomed wife. Strauss’ tone poem portrays a far more compressed journey – epic nonetheless, whose central theme, the Alpine slopes, is depicted over the course of only a single day.
For sheer scope this piece is memorable, requiring not only a huge orchestra, but, in addition, a brass group backstage, wind machines, cowbells and a thunder sheet. If this fantasia wasn’t actually composed for a movie, it certainly had a potent visual image in mind as it takes us into a virtual IMAX cinema, presenting a feast of pristine pastures, soaring heights, precipitous cliffs set over rugged terrain as well as forests and running streams. We even encounter an apparition. It is as though we were for the first time experiencing all of the foreboding and wonder of a childhood fairytale - and all of this in surround sound stereo!
Strauss maximizes this unique orchestration’s potential in the most ingenious ways, incorporating motives to represent different concepts, using rhythmic repetition to create a feeling of motion, a pulsating, living energy. At other times he explores the very low register of the wind instruments to portray the awesome stillness of night on the mountains. Sometimes we hear only a reduced ensemble, making us more self-consciously alone with our fears, and dwarfed by the vastness of the mountain. When the brass section heralds the sun’s appearance in the horizon our attention is riveted elsewhere as we ‘watch’ a golden light envelop the heavens. There is no mistaking the composer’s intention, as he creates in sound a canvas as vivid and subtle as any master impressionist. The winds bring us birdcalls and even drops of rain.
The New York Philharmonic was in their element with this romantic and full-blooded rendition, with orchestra and conductor equal participants in the exploration. I never really had the feeling of an orchestra following instructions so much as each member journeying and celebrating together. It should also be mentioned that this work requires endurance and virtuosity to make the most of its considerable expressive range and dramatic intensity. This was surely in evidence tonight. The effect was thrilling.