Review: CSO goes big with 'Alpine' symphony

Inon Barnatan
Cincinnati Enquirer

By Janelle Gelfand

Richard Strauss’ last tone poem, depicting a daylong hike up and down an Alpine mountain, is rarely performed because it calls for such massive orchestral forces.

On Friday, guest conductor Roberto Abbado led the CSO’s first performance in more than two decades with an expanded orchestra of 109 musicians, spilling into every corner of Music Hall’s stage. The performance was a tour-de-force, and the sound was majestic in Music Hall’s acoustical space.

Abbado’s return to the Cincinnati Symphony podium included a collaboration with Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. Barnatan stepped in on just a few days notice for pianist Lars Vogt, who canceled due to illness.

Abbado is an artistic partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and a busy conductor of opera and orchestras in the United States and Europe. A native of Italy, he is a member of a distinguished musical family, including his father, former director of the Milan Conservatory, and his uncle, the conductor Claudio Abbado.

The Cincinnati May Festival gave the American premiere of Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony” in 1916. The onstage spectacle included two sets of timpani, two harps, organ, celeste, a wind machine, a thunder machine, cow bells, glockenspiel and expanded brass and winds.

You didn’t need the program notes to follow the climb up the Alps, so vivid was Abbado’s journey through this hour-long piece. It began to the rumbles of two tubas (depicting the early morning darkness), and climbed enjoyably through peaks and valleys.

Abbado knew just how to pace the piece, as he managed massive buildups and granite-like themes in the brass against moments of gentle beauty. There were stunning horn calls, a distant offstage band and a powerful thunderstorm, which began with eerie glissandos in the strings.

The journey was rich with atmosphere, and the final summit, accompanied by organ, was spiritual in mood.

The conductor led exuberantly and with nuance, capturing the full sweep and grandeur of the work, and illuminating inner themes along the way. Strauss lovers will appreciate the glowing writing for horns and strings (this was written shortly after “Der Rosenkavalier”), and the musicians played with virtuosity.

In the program’s first half, the orchestra revisited Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor, K. 491 with Barnatan as soloist. The Tel Aviv-born pianist, 34, winner of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, is an engaging artist who communicates joy as he plays.

He displayed a light touch and rippling runs, and his phrasing was imaginative and poetic; I only wished for more ringing tone in the slow movement. His inventive first-movement cadenza was partly his own, and partly by the pianist Murray Perahia.

Abbado was a seamless partner, and the result was rewarding. (Of note, Barnatan was using an iPad for sheet music, with a “pedal” attachment to turn the pages.)