Lorin Maazel, a former director of the New York Philharmonic, brought his exacting music-making back to the podium for a nine-day guest appearance. A wizard of baton technique – even the back of his head communicates what he wants the orchestra to do – his performances leave little room for spontaneity and generally contain odd interpretive choices. Today was no exception.

Lorin Maazel © Chris Lee
Lorin Maazel
© Chris Lee

Eine Alpensinfonie is the last and largest of Strauss’s tone poems, nearly an hour of music divided into 24 sections depicting a day spent climbing the alps: sunrise, a mountain ascent, passing waterfalls, glaciers, and pastures, the summit, an afternoon storm, and sunset. The work calls for a huge orchestra, including 12 horns offstage and the rare, oboe-like heckelphone.

Strauss’s diaries reveal that he began sketching Eine Alpensinfonie in response to the suicide of the artist Karl-Stauffer Bern, and took up the work again upon the untimely death of his friend Gustav Mahler. Drawing inspiration from Nietzsche, he initially titled the work “The Antichrist - An Alpine Symphony,” to express his conviction that mankind would achieve “moral purification” not through Christianity, but by “one’s own strength” and the “worship of glorious eternal nature.” Strauss dropped these references, but the intensity of the music demonstrates that Eine Alpensinfonie is not merely a picture postcard.

The Philharmonic did justice to the music’s virtuoso elements. In the fortissimo sections, the orchestra had immense power and volume coupled with great clarity in Strauss’s complex counterpoint, never becoming coarse, brash, or muddy. The strings were alternately warm or cold and glassy as the moment required, while the brasses were always firm and solid without losing blend across the section.

As for Maazel, he is also a virtuoso technician of the baton, clearly communicating every nuance of tempo, phrasing, or dynamics that he desires. However, he sometimes chose slow tempos that lent great clarity to the music yet robbed it of forward momentum. And while he was generally content with a steady tempo, he sporadically imposed willful and unexpected tempo shifts. Everything was perfectly balanced and expertly controlled, in an interpretation that emphasized the music’s technical complexity and monumentality at the expense of spontaneity and expressive warmth. Still, with a running time some ten minutes longer than normal, Maazel’s expansiveness had simply become dragging.

A different composer took the stage at the second half with the Horn Concerto No. 1, written when Strauss was 22. As the son of an accomplished horn player, Strauss grew up immersed in the instrument’s sound, and produced an idiomatic, elegant work that unfolds as a continuous movement with three distinct sections. Strauss’s signature adventurous harmonies and orchestration are not yet in play, making the concerto more stylistically related to Mozart than most of his other orchestral works.

Because the horn is a difficult instrument, composers don’t generally ask as much virtuosity of it as they do of the violin. Still, consistently beautiful tone and solid intonation are enough of an achievement to make the horn appealing. Philip Myers played with elegance and grace, settling into an even pulse with his colleagues. What the performance lacked in oomph was compensated for in tone. Myers will go down as one of the greats of the horn world, though perhaps he shines more as the leader of his section.

The concert concluded with the playful tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche ("Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks"), the composer’s take on the legend of a medieval prankster. Strauss wrote the piece without a specific program in mind, leaving listeners to “crack the nut that the rogue has prepared for them.” The piece is written in rondo form, with various playful themes returning to suggest the character’s troublemaking adventures. Perhaps the most famous of these themes is articulated toward the beginning by the horn, a phrase that spans two and a half octaves in a lopsided rhythm. In a true display of “chops,” as brass players call it, Philip Myers played first horn in Till even after his concerto.

Again, Maazel started the work out with a brilliant tempo, and its own exuberance and the Philharmonic’s skill carried it off well enough. But by the end, Till Eulenspiegel didn’t prance off the stage so much as settle down for a long winter’s nap.