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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64 (1915)
Festliches Präludium, Op.61
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
Rec. Feb 2002, Tonhalle, Zurich
Orchestral works vol. 4
ARTE NOVA 74321 92779-2 [63.44]

David Zinman's Strauss series with the Tonhalle Orchestra has attracted much praise, not least from me. And this fourth volume, coupling the massive orchestra of the Alpine Symphony with the even more massive orchestra of the Festival Prelude, represents an appealing bargain.

Strauss composed the Alpine Symphony during 1914-15, more than ten years after the completion of his previous large-scale orchestral work, the Sinfonia Domestica, a state of affairs that had everything to do with his successes in the opera house. There is an enormous orchestra, including quadruple woodwind and brass, an abundance of percussion instruments, wind and thunder machines, and even a 'distant' ensemble and an organ. All this is a reflection of the resources Strauss lived with and had come to expect in contemporary Germany.

The intention was to translate into music his impression of a journey on foot in the Bavarian Alps, a choice of subject which was no doubt inspired by his enthusiasm for his new villa at Garmisch, built out of the profits he had made from Salome. Strauss uses his supreme skills as a musical illustrator in evoking every detail of his environment. The progress of the mountain tour is reflected in the structure - rising to an ascent and then gradually descending again - as well as in the manner in which the themes develop. His mastery of the orchestra is heard to magnificent effect, and he knew it: 'Now at last I have learned to orchestrate.'

There is no question that Zinman has the measure of the scope and scale of the work. There is always a clear sense of direction and a well articulated phrase structure. What is less certain is the recorded sound, which lacks a certain degree of bloom in the string sound, something which in this of all works is an important issue. It remains the case, however, that the listener is swept along by the colour and even the sheer grandeur of the music, though rival versions by the likes of Karajan (DG), Kempe (EMI) and Solti (Decca) have greater opulence.

The same might be said also for the Festive Prelude. This occasional piece was written in order to precede a special performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony on the occasion of the consecration of the Konzerthaus in Vienna, in October 1913.

This building was constructed on a lavish scale, the largest of its three halls designed to accommodate an audience of four thousand, and in these circumstances Strauss felt compelled to rise to the occasion and on the grand scale too. He opted for some imposing contrasts: as large a string body as possible, huge wind and brass sections with at least six (but if possible 12) onstage trumpets, supported by the full weight of the organ.

In the light of this it is hardly surprising that the Festival Prelude has remained an 'occasional piece', impressive and imposing by virtue of its sheer scale and grandeur. Inevitably it proves so in this new recording, even if the more powerful passages sound a little strained. There are abundant compensations, as Zinman and his enlarged orchestra rise to the challenge this epic work presents. At the appealing Arte Nova price this remains a more than useful bargain.

Terry Barfoot

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