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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony):
(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 Pastures) [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
NAXOS 8.557811 [54:14]

Strauss’s final tone-poem, the Alpine Symphony of 1915, is a huge work in terms of its structural scale and the forces required. It’s also a huge challenge for orchestra and conductor. Strauss makes almost impossible demands on his players, the horn section in particular, for whom this is one of the ultimate peaks of the repertoire – a veritable ‘Matterhorn’, if you like. Indeed, the work calls for a total of some twenty horns, twelve of them in the off-stage band!

The structure of the work is fascinating, as it reflects the actual journey up and down the mountain. The climax is the colossal outburst at the summit, but the cleverest structural device is the descent. For this, Strauss was faced with the danger of anticlimax attendant on the symphonic necessity for a recapitulation of earlier themes. So he contrived a thrilling storm, and, as the party of climbers hurry home amidst the thunder, lightning and torrential rain, the composer is able to review in rapid succession many of the earlier descriptive episodes. Extremely crafty, and highly effective.

The work is spectacular, no doubt about that – and in that quality it reflects its subject, for what in this world is more spectacular than vast mountain scenery? But the work contains many subtle effects too; the arrival on the summit, for example, is at first quiet and awestruck, with a hesitant oboe solo (track 13, 0:15), the full orchestral panoply being saved for a little later when the great vista has ‘sunk in’. The little ‘peeps’ on the oboe in the tense lull before the storm are marvellously evocative (track 18, 0:30 and later), as are the diminishing raindrops after the storm (track 19, 3:12), in a retreat deliberately (I believe) reminiscent of the William Tell Overture. Incidentally, there are many other incidental quotations, or rather allusions, in this work; they include one to Strauss’s own Arabella, one to Wagner’s Siegfried, and even, arguably, one to Mendelssohn’s Oh for the Wings of a Dove. No I’m not telling you – find them yourself!

Nearer the conclusion, the coda is ushered in by a key-change of breathtaking and daring beauty (track 21, 6:06), as the violins reach giddy, pianissimo heights. For those interested in technicalities, it’s a shift from A major to the ‘home’ key of Bb minor, using C#/Bb as the pivot note. Sounds terrible, but the effect is totally magical.

So, do Wit and his Weimar players rise to these musical challenges? The answer is undoubtedly yes, for this is a really very fine account of the work, fit to rank with the best available. Wit takes relatively broad tempi, allowing the multi-coloured orchestration and sumptuous melodies plenty of space to make their effect. But he misses none of the energy of the faster passages, and allows the music to surge forward where necessary in the early stages.

The recording is impressive, particularly in its capturing of the inner, teeming detail of the score. However, the downside is that some of the ‘tuttis’ do not make quite the impact they should. After the long dark Bb minor introduction portraying Night, the sunrise (Track 2) – even more magnificent for me than the one in Also Sprach Zarathustra - should be overwhelming in its brilliance. Wit and his players don’t quite make it, splendid though it is. Something of the same reservations apply to the great outburst on the summit, and the storm which follows, though here, the percussion is undoubtedly impressive - except that the Strauss’s beloved wind machine can’t really be heard. Shame! The Philips engineers for Haitink, for example, capture it much better, and, in part because of that, the Storm is even more exciting there.

But much of the playing, under Wit’s sympathetic guidance, is quite wonderful. The brass are a perfectly balanced ensemble, and the principal trumpet deserves a mention for his negotiation of ‘Dangerous Moments’ (track 12) – perilous stuff indeed, which has embarrassed more than one distinguished player in the past. And those horns? Heroes, all of them, the high, unison passages ringing out with great confidence and massive decibels. The one solitary top concert F, during the Vision passage, can be heard distinctly, if you know where to listen (track 13, just after 4:45).

Of course, this piece has a great deal more to it than virtuoso horn writing, and the other orchestral sections, strings, woodwind and percussion, make superb contributions too. The strings are a really fine body, with rich, homogeneous tone, as well as malleable phrasing when required, and all the woodwind soloists (particularly first oboe and first bassoon) acquit themselves with distinction. And I’ve already mentioned the percussion’s terrific blood and thunder (as opposed to ‘thud and blunder’) in the storm sequence.

A major contender, then, and you can cram the one hundred and forty or so players that this work requires into your hi-fi for just £4.99 – a miracle!

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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