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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) Op. 64 (1915)
In pictures: concept and photographs by Tobias Melle
Tonhalle Orchestra, Zürich/David Zinman
Night [3:31] Sunrise [1:22] The Ascent [2:15] Entering the Forest [5:21] Walking by the Brook [:51] By the Waterfall [:16] Apparition [:48] Flowery Meadows [:55] At the Mountain Pasture [2:00] Wandering Through Thicket and Undergrowth [1:27] On the Glacier [1:01] Dangerous Moments [1:25] On the Summit [5:01] Vision [3:37] Rising Mists [:21] The Sun Gradually Dims [1:07] Elegy [2:28] Calm before the Storm [3:12] Thunderstorm, Descent [3:53] Sunset [2:43] Epilogue [6:46] Night [2:16]
Recorded 11-12 February 2002, Tonhalle, Zurich
RCA 82876 50663 9 [54.00]

This is the sort of project that walks a very fine line between an original and innovative work of art, and a big sales gimmick. After viewing this pictorial setting of Strauss’s massive tone poem-cum-symphony, I have come to the conclusion that it is a bit of both.

Let us begin with the music. The Alpine Symphony began life in 1911. Entries from Strauss’s diary indicate that he intended for this work to be the Antichrist, not in the Christian Fundamentalist sense of the word, rather, in the Nietzschean vein, where organized religion is abandoned in favor of finding the divine in unspoiled nature. It is an ambitious work indeed, fifty-four minutes divided into twenty-two different scenes or events as the observer ascends the mountain and encounters both its wonders and its dangers. It requires an orchestra of over one hundred players and calls for such effects as wind and thunder machines.

Evocative? Yes. Breathtaking? At times. Ostentatious and Pretentious? Definitely.

Regardless, there is much to love about the work, and this performance by Zürich’s Tonhalle Orchestra is very fine indeed. David Zinman does an excellent job of keeping the score’s over-the-top elements fairly at bay. He and his orchestra give us a performance that is well paced, and tastefully non-indulgent. The Tonhalle’s string section is a shimmering wonder, and the oft-utilized brass play with conviction and authority without ever being overbearing. Zinman brings out all of the myriad details in this complicated score to great effect, an effect that is enhanced greatly by the stunning array of photographs by musician turned photographer, Tobias Melle.

Melle spent more than three years taking photographs in the Berchtesgaden Alps, the Bavarian portion of which is a national park. Receiving a rare permit to camp and photograph freely in the park, Melle was able to capture on film all of the scenes described in music by Strauss, and to wondrous effect. His pictures are stunningly beautiful.

What is left to ponder is whether this Sierra Club quality slide show set to music bears repeated viewing. Further, one must question whether or not the photographic montage would work in a live concert setting. My conclusion in the first regard is more than a couple of showings and this film, beautiful as it is, would wear thin. After all, who wants to see someone’s vacation photos more than once? As for a live performance, unless the conductor replicated Zinman’s tempi down to the second, the risk of unsynchronized photos would be very great. It is most evident that the photographs were timed to the music, and not the other way round.

Nevertheless, we have a fine performance of the work, if you can take hearing it more than once or twice a year. And if the pictures get old, you can turn off the television and simply listen to the music. As for the sound quality, I thought that the recording was a bit heavy on the treble end, and could have used more warmth and richness.

The program notes are elementary, and offer little insight into composer or composition. Frankly, I found them to be a good deal too self-congratulatory to be relevant. Picture quality is astonishing.

And so, a mixed review. If you find this for rent, then definitely drop the two or three bucks (or pounds or euros, as it were) and enjoy it. Purchase recommended for diehards or technophiles who get their jollies from showing off their home theatre systems.

Kevin Sutton


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