Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony represents his most
elaborate orchestral setting. It employs a huge orchestra
with eight horns seated within the orchestra and twelve more
offstage, plus thunder and wind machines, cowbells and celesta
and organ as well as significantly augmented woodwinds.
His Alpine ascent is a nature lover’s guide without any philosophical
underpinnings although we know that he was a follower of Nietzsche
- as was Delius whose composition, Song of the High Hills,
is very similar in tone.
There have been numerous recordings of this inflated but glorious
work, notably by Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic and
Antoni Wit on Naxos, but Jansons’ reading is spectacular -
wonderfully atmospheric and vividly evocative. His Alpine
climb is a joyful, life-enhancing experience, embracing the
beauty of nature, the traveler uplifted by intimations of
magnificent high vistas, and vicariously thrilled by the vivid
implications of nature’s potential terrors in a hostile environment.
The stunning surround-sound is a major contributory factor.
The opening marks a dawning with mistiness implied in the
lower orchestra, giving way to brighter figurations as the
sun rises preluding a glorious day with perfect weather for
the ascent. And so the music progresses, optimistic and heroic
as we climb through lower flower-strewn meadows and forests
through snow and ice to the summit. Granite-like figures constantly
remind us of the grandeur and forbidding nature of the mountain.
Leo Samama’s notes, almost a musical travel guide are very
helpful. The music is divided into 23 cues for ease of reference
with Samama’s commentary. I was amused by his parting shot:
“Strauss once remarked matter-of-factly. ‘I wish to give music
as a cow gives milk.’”
Don Juan was Richard Strauss’s first major success;
its fire and passion irresistible. Strauss’s view of the Don
is unquestionably romantic. Unlike Mozart’s questionable figure,
this Don Juan is a model for *Errol Flynn, a misunderstood
swashbuckling hero, his charms so alluring to women. Strauss’s
Don Juan, is eternally optimistic, he hops from bed
to bed, swaggers from fight to fight in his impossible search
for the ideal woman; but each time he is destined to be disappointed.
In the end, disillusioned and in despair, he allows himself,
we feel, to be bested in his last swordfight.
Jansons’ reading underlines all the languor and heady, perfumed
atmosphere of the boudoir, the Don’s seductions and ultimately
his world-weariness and disillusion. The swashbuckling elements
are unrestrained and exciting although on occasion, particularly
in the early pages, I would have preferred those horn-calls
to have been that shade more thrusting and thrilling but this
is a minor carp. There are many fine readings of this symphonic
poem. For me the best are from Karajan and, best of all, Reiner’s
supremely erotic and thrilling 1954 account with his Chicago
[*In fact Errol Flynn made a successful self-mocking film
The Adventures of Don Juan in 1949 with, by
the way, an excellent score by Max Steiner (with other film
scores for Errol Flynn on RCA VICTOR GD80912). Also, with
film music in mind, readers might be impressed with Victor
Young’s score for the 1952 M-G-M swashbuckler Scaramouche
(based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini) that starred Stewart
Granger and Mel Ferrer and included probably the longest and
most spectacular sword fight in movie history. Young’s score,
recorded on Marco
Polo 8.223607 - was a very clever pastiche of Richard
Strauss’s Don Juan.]
A stunning Alpine ascent and a robust and opulent Don
Juan. I have a 2009 Recording Of The Year choice
Comment received from Martin Walker
Ian Lace writes: "His Alpine ascent is a nature lover’s
guide without any philosophical underpinnings although we
know that he was a follower of Nietzsche - as was Delius whose
composition, Song of the High Hills, is very similar in tone."
It may cast a different light on any performance, including
this one, to know that in fact the Alpensinfonie does have
philosophical - and biographical - underpinnings. It was originally
titled "Der Antichrist", referring to Nietzsche's
polemic of 1888, representing an attempt to show how in attaining
the pure air of the lonely heights of moral autonomy and leaving
behind the undergrowth of Christian civilisation man (the
Übermensch) must experience the cleansing force of the
thunderstorm and other natural forces symbolising the dangers
of freedom. The work also has a secret hero, the Swiss painter
and passionate mountain climber Karl Stauffer, who committed
suicide in Florence in 1891 after his imprisonment for adultery
with the wife of a leading Swiss citizen. Strauss decided
not to make reference to biographical details in his work,
but it is not impossible to feel the ending as a kind of death,
a "Freitod" (a free death) as one of the German
terms has it - the other term, full of the "Moralinsäure"
(moralising acid) hated by Nietzsche, being "Selbstmord"
(self-murder, as Hamlet also puts it). Perhaps it is an occasion
for a re-appraisal of Strauss to understand his sympathy for
Nietzsche's words in the Anti-Christ about "the courage
to investigate what is forbidden; the predestination for the
labyrinth. An experience made out of seven lonelinesses. New
ears for new music" - and further: "One must be
practised to live on mountains - to see the pitiful topical
chatter of politics and the egotism of peoples far below one.
One must have become indifferent, one must never ask whether
truth is useful or might even be fatal to oneself."
I found the performance I heard of the Alpine symphony by
the Ensemble Modern at a series of Lachenmann concerts in
Frankfurt a couple of years ago reflected the daring, the
tumult, the final cession of life-spirits without all the
jolly nature wonders that programme writers have been eager
to plaster over the work and its tragic background.