REVIEW: Dausgaard Illuminates Nielsen and Schumann at the NY Phil
FEBRUARY 15, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard makes his New York Philharmonic debut this week, bringing energized refinement to a well balanced program. He is joined by the British piano virtuoso Stephen Hough in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. It’s a spectacular account, buttressed by two fascinating symphonic works.
The program begins with Carl Nielsen's Helios Overture, Op. 17. Denmark is rightly proud of Nielsen, a very original composer from the late-Romantic era, and while American audiences might not always know what to expect, his music has stood the test of time. One foot planted in Germanic counterpoint, but also having a keenness for other musical flavors, such as French, perhaps Russian, influences, Nielsen's music is full of surprises.
The Helios Overture is essentially a symphonic poem, with a simple program holding it together. The composer wrote in the score: "Silence and darkness, / The sun rises with a joyous song of praise, / It wanders its golden way / and sinks quietly into the sea." He composed the overture while on holiday in Greece, and the music seems infused with fresh ocean air and the warmth of the sun. Dausgaard shapes the work expertly, drawing fine playing from the Philharmonic. The intricate counterpoint, in the long build from the opening drones, to the wonderful first climax, the trumpets entering with a Debussy-like fanfare, was glistening and clear. As the work shifts imperceptibly from one tonal center to another, the texture developing subtly, Dausgaard keeps our focus in just the right place. Like a beautiful day under the sun, it seemed to end too quickly, yet inexorably.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, is a quintessential example of Beethoven the Classicist -- clearly adhering to the model of Mozart -- as well as Beethoven the fierce original. Stephen Hough played the piano solo with a driving ferocity. He brought the first movement's jutting scales and arpeggios to life with great points of arrival. His trills were electric, and playing Beethoven's own cadenza, whipped the air in the room into a frenzy.
Hough made a bold choice in the slow movement -- he obeyed Beethoven's sustain pedal markings. It's a bold choice because it means blurring the harmonies in a way that seems odd to modern ears. The pianos of Beethoven's day did not sustain as long as the modern Steinway, and pedal markings like Beethoven's here -- he indicates that the player should hold the pedal down over several bars and changes of chord -- are generally modified by contemporary pianists. But Hough, adhering to Beethoven's specific instructions, found something magical and mysterious in the music. He trusts Beethoven, and in turn, makes the music sound new again. The last movement, a rip-roaring rondo, brought out Beethoven's witty side, with conductor and orchestra in a rollicking repartee with the soloist.
Dausgaard's skills on the podium are especially evident in Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C Major. Schumann has not been celebrated for his orchestral writing as much as for his piano music, because, I think, it's such tricky stuff. Composed in the 1845-46, during a bout of the physical and mental illness that would eventually overtake him, the Second Symphony finds Schumann taking inspiration from his Baroque forbears' bustling counterpoint and a Classical roundness of form. Dausgaard understands this, and in a superior feat of clarifying the texture, distilled each phrase to its essence. The monumental, shape-shifting first movement was moody, yet made a clear rhetorical statement. The antic Scherzo was deliciously crisp, the violins dazzling in the fiery sixteenth-note business, the rest of the orchestra deftly supporting. The bittersweet slow movement pulsed and throbbed with melancholy. The finale had an air of triumph, and where in lesser hands might tend to wander, here the path from Schumann's suffering to exaltation of the human spirit always seemed well-illuminated.