The last time when Daniel Harding conducted the New York Philharmonic was in 2011, the year of his debut at the helm of the ensemble. Still lesser known in the United States than in Europe, he was invited back to lead a series of subscription performances featuring two Romantic opuses composed almost half a century apart: Grieg’s beloved Piano Concerto in A minor and Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie, a massive undertaking conceived in the waning days of late Romanticism.

Daniel Harding conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The protagonist of Grieg’s daunting concerto was Harding’s compatriot, Paul Lewis, a self-effacing pianist never keen to show off his virtuosic prowess and, at the same time, one of the most probing artists of his generation. Lewis hasn’t himself performed with the Philharmonic since his 2014 debut. His Grieg wasn’t marked by posturing and arms waving, but was more contemplative, anchored in the pianist’s cherished Beethoven and Schubert tradition with form and melody perfectly balanced. Dispatching with ease all the technical bravura passages, the pianist aimed to bring forward the immediacy and tenderness of the music, and its inherent nostalgia. Writing for large ensembles never came easy to the Norwegian composer and Lewis enabled one hearing, especially in the Adagio, hints of those wondrous and too rarely played miniatures published as Lyric Pieces. There weren’t any significant rhythmic or dynamic discrepancies between the pianist’s and the orchestra’s approaches to playing the concerto, but members of the ensemble occasionally displayed their trademark insouciance and lack of engagement in their dialogues with the soloist. The notable exceptions were the interventions by principal flute Robert Langevin and the cellos, led by Carter Brey.

Paul Lewis and the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

It was evident from the first bars of the Nacht introduction that An Alpine Symphony is a score about which Daniel Harding cares deeply. He reigned with great authority the massive orchestral apparatus for which Strauss composed, while shaping with clarity and a great sense of pace the extended musical arch, describing a day-long excursion in the Alps, starting from – and returning to – the calm of darkness. In Harding’s rendition, a series of unexpected details came through while climaxes were never overbearing. The conductor underlined the music’s double debt to both Wagner – the opening Night clearly reminiscent of the Prelude of Das Rheingold – and Brahms – evoked in the Flowering Meadows string textures. Truth be told, even if the overall performance was impressive, the members of the New York Philharmonic didn’t always respond well to the conductor’s demands: some horn passages were murky, various entrances could have been sharper.

The New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

As Harding made clear, Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie is more than just an elaborate tone poem in 22 linked parts, depicting a mountainous landscape or a day’s worth of meteorological changes. It’s not just about how easily listeners recognize bird calls or waterfalls, flowery meadows or menacing forests with rustling leaves, the rumble of a distant thunder or the fall of individual raindrops. The music has a spiritual, transcending quality, of Nietzschean inspiration, clearly palpable in the Elegy segment with its melody exquisitely rendered by Katherine Needleman, principal oboe of the Baltimore Symphony, a guest of the Philharmonic on Thursday night.

In a work started earlier but reconsidered after Mahler’s death in 1911, the final bars were imbued with a sense of regret that didn’t only bring to mind the ending of Strauss' contemporaneous Der Rosenkavalier but also compositions still decades in the future such as the Four Last Songs or Metamorphosen.