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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie Op. 64 (1913)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Filmed November 1983 at the Philharmonie, Berlin
Director Hugo Käch
PAL System
SONY SVD 46400 [55í35"]


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This performance was recorded at the Berlin Philharmonicís annual All Soulsí Day concert. As a DVD it offers little other than a fairly conventional film of the orchestra in concert. There are no special features. I also wondered initially if the opportunity might have been taken to include a discreet amount of "Alpine footage" Ė after all, this is unashamed illustrative music. The danger of such an approach is that of distracting the viewer from the music. However, sensitively employed, it can enhance the music as was the case in a marvellous film, broadcast by the BBC some years ago, of Christopher Hogwood conducting Haydnís Creation, a film which I hope will make it onto DVD before too long.

Such an approach has not been adopted here, presumably because this is one of the substantial series of concert films which Karajan made towards the end of his life to set down his "legacy" for posterity. It is not without significance that in the closing credits he is listed as providing "Artistic Supervision", for which read "pretty full editorial control", Iíd suggest.

Most certainly heís in full control of the performance we see here though, not having seen film of him conducting for some time, I was rather surprised at how little he seems to do for much of the time. This performance offers an object lesson in how to control a performance completely whilst maintaining economy of gesture. Several younger, more "physical" conductors might learn from this. Perhaps it is significant the Karajan became much more animated during the ĎSunsetí sequence (cue point 21) than in the preceding ĎStormí (cue 20). The former is conducted with big, sweeping, expressive arm movements while for much of the superficially more exciting Storm sequence Karajan seems to be doing little more than beating time and giving entries with often barely perceptible gestures or glances. The interesting point is that the Storm is still pretty tumultuous but the Sunset is simply gorgeous, echt Strauss.

I must put my cards on the table and say that Iíve long felt that Eine Alpensinfonie is somewhat maligned. Yes, it is programme music, but Strauss was quite open about that. The thematic material is not as distinguished as that in some of his other tone poems and, of course, by its very nature itís an episodic piece. However, the orchestration is tremendously skilful and Karajanís performance here, assisted by flawless playing from the BPO, is a sharp reminder of how many passages are delicately and atmospherically scored. The piece is far from being all bombast, as some have claimed. Frankly, Iíd far rather listen to this than the tedious, overblown Also sprach Zarathustra.

That said, of course the piece has its weaknesses. What it needs is a master Straussian at the helm to make the most of its many virtues and to save us from being embarrassed by its less successful elements. Perhaps Iím biased in its favour by having learned it from the audio recordings of Bernard Haitink and Rudolf Kempe, great Strauss conductors both. Karajan is another master of this repertoire and, even at the age of 77, he proves himself to be an expert mountain guide. I think we also benefit from his age and from the wisdom of experience. He knows just how to pace and shape a potentially ramshackle work such as this. He knows also how to control dynamics so as to avoid the trap of vulgarity into which a lesser conductor might easily fall. Instead, he makes us marvel at the resourcefulness with which Strauss deploys his mammoth orchestra. There is an abundance of colour and dynamic contrast in Karajanís reading for which the fabulous Berliners must take their share of the credit, of course. Itís just a pity that after the Epilogue (cue 22), refulgently played here, and the concluding descent back into Night (cue 23) the audience is unable to restrain their applause, thereby vitiating much of the atmosphere so potently built by the performers.

Artistically, therefore, this DVD is self-recommending. The visual presentation is that of a pretty conventional concert relay with plenty of focus on the maestro himself. The disc is divided into 24 separate cue points, all listed in the booklet and breaking the work down into its component sections. On my equipment the sound reproduction was good and Iím sure it will be even better run through a hi-fi system. The fulsome note adds little, Iím afraid.

Overall, a good release which offers a high quality performance and an interesting visual record of Karajan in action. Recommended

John Quinn

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