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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64, TrV 233 (1911-15) [54:14]:
1. Nacht (Night) [3:58]
2. Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) [1:28]
3. Der Anstieg (The Ascent) [2:17]
4. Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Wood) [6:08]
5. Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Stream) [0:48]
6. Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall) [0:15]
7. Erscheinung (Apparition) [0:46]
8. Auf Blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows) [0:56]
9. Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture) [2:37]
10. Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Straying through Thicket and Undergrowth) [1:31]
11. Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier) [1:04]
12. Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments) [1:29]
13. Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) [5:19]
14. Vision (Vision) [3:58]
15. Nebel steigen auf (Mists rise) [0:20]
16. Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun gradually darkens) [0:56]
17. Elegie (Elegy) [2:12]
18. Stille vor der Sturme (Calm before the Storm) [3:07]
19. Gewitter und Sturm, Abschied (Thunder and Storm, Descent) [3:54]
20. Sonnenuntergang (Sunset) [2:15]
21. Ausklang (Final Sounds) [6:35]
22. Nacht (Night) [2:19]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Antoni Wit
rec. Weimarhalle,
Weimar, Germany, 4-6 July 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557811 [54.14]

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Naxos has struck gold with this magnificent recording of Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. This recording can live with the very best accounts and in most cases is the superior choice. 

Strauss’s monumental An Alpine Symphony divides opinion. The score frequently receives an unfavourable press and criticism is often fierce, the work being undermined and belittled, not taken seriously in many quarters. Many commentators think it ‘over the top’, too self-indulgent with an excess of corny effects and lacking in melodic invention. Treated as a curiosity it requires considerable resources and is expensive to perform. Consequently it is not performed in the concert hall as often as one might expect. I love it and have treasured my vinyl recording from Herbert von Karajan and the BPO since its release in 1981. An Alpine Symphony is not a score that one would wish to play on a weekly basis but it certainly deserves more than the occasional outing; especially with an account as superb as this.

Although cast in one continuous movement it has a distinct programme over 22 sections which describes each phase of the epic Alpine journey. Strauss begins at night, then through sunrise and finishing at sunset. The composer drew his inspiration from a schoolboy climbing expedition in the Alps, in which at one point the boys lost their way and on their descent had been drenched during a thunder-storm. An equally important source is to be found in Nietzsche. Strauss had wholeheartedly embraced Nietzsche’s philosophy, using his idea of liberation through nature. Strauss was notably influenced by Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity, Der Antichrist: Fluch auf das Christentum (The Antichrist: Curse on Christianity).

Strauss started the composition of An Alpine Symphony, the last of his tone-poems, in 1911, working on it intermittently until its completion in 1915. He gave the première of the score with the Dresden Symphony Orchestra in October 1915 in Berlin. In the booklet notes Keith Anderson explains that a very large orchestra is required that includes double woodwind and eight extra players, a brass section of 14 players, including four tenor tubas, four harps, a large percussion section including a thunder and a wind machine, 12 horns, two trumpets, two trombones off-stage, five dozen or so string players and a concert organ.

I read recently how much Antoni Wit loves giving performances of An Alpine Symphony. His affection for this opulent and highly coloured orchestral score certainly shows. Wit and his orchestra are right inside the spirit of the score displaying a genuine intensity and adapt magnificently to the changing moods of the Alpine landscape. The substantial brass section displays their awesome power, the woodwind play with detail and remarkable agility and the strings have a splendid timbre. I was especially impressed with the extended percussion section that provides effects that are magnificent and realistic.

The section that builds up to the ‘Sunrise’ is truly awesome. In the ‘Entry to the Wood’ I loved the authoritative hunting horns and the Staatskapelle strings with their silvery tone. The excitement leading up to the sight of the waterfall is impressive and the cascading water is convincingly portrayed. ‘On the Alpine Pasture’ the Staatskapelle woodwind are in fine form and the rich strings are striking. The cold air of the spectacular glacier is realistically caught as are the fragmented textures of the ‘Dangerous Moments’ section. The quality of the playing matches the brilliance of the orchestral colour marking the achievement of  ‘On the Summit’. This is Strauss at his most luxuriant and consistently exciting.

I like the way the music provides the short and welcome respite in the ‘Vision’ section before building up a tremendous momentum. Here the organ enters the score impressively. In the ‘Elegy’ the low strings and woodwind take centre-stage. The significant and imposing organ opens the intense ‘Sunset’ section with terrific work from the trumpets and trombones. In the evocative final section ‘Night’ returns and with it the music of the opening. In the last bars there is a concluding reminiscence of the climb itself. The Staatskapelle Weimar under Antoni Wit can be justly proud of their achievement.

There have over the years been many fine versions of this work and many readers will be familiar with accounts from Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden Symphony Orchestra (Staatskapelle Dresden) from 1971, on a budget priced 9 disc all Strauss set, on EMI Classics 7243 5 73614 2 2 as well as a Brilliant Classics box. There’s also the historic 1941 Munich recording of Richard Strauss conducting his own score with the Bayerische Staatskapelle on Dutton CDBP 9720.

Perhaps the best known account is that from Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 1980 at the Philharmonie Berlin, on ‘Karajan Gold’ Deutsche Grammophon 439 017-2. High on virtuosity and artistry Karajan’s Berlin players are commanding and the strings in particular display their magnificence throughout. Karajan’s version has been a favourite of mine since it was first released on vinyl, however, this Naxos account from Antoni Wit is its equal.  

I admire the live version from Christian Thielemann with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, from 2000 at the Musikverein Vienna, on Deutsche Grammophon 469 519-2 c/w ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ Suite. This offers an exciting performance but without the same vital forward momentum as the accounts from Karajan and Wit.

The sound quality from the Naxos engineers is realistic and well balanced. Keith Anderson’s booklet notes are up his usual high standard. There is however enough space on the disc to have accommodated another substantial score.

A golden recording of which Naxos should be very proud.

Michael Cookson

see also Review by Gwyn Parry-Jones July Bargain of the Month


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