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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64 (1911-1915) [50:24]
Four Last Songs, AV 150 (1948) [20:16] *
Anja Harteros (soprano) *
Staatskapelle Dresden/Fabio Luisi
rec. 21-23 May, 2007, Lukaskirche Dresden, Germany. DDD
SONY BMG 88697 141972 [70:39]

This is the third release in a projected cycle of Strauss’s orchestral works by the Dresden Staatskapelle under its new Music Director and principal conductor, Fabio Luisi. It contains the much-recorded Four Last Songs coupled with the less often-heard, but no less magical, Alpine Symphony from 35 years earlier in Strauss’s life.
Luisi has a lot to live up to: Strauss himself had a long and fruitful relationship with the Dresden orchestra and his own collaboration was followed by that of such eminent conductors as Busch, Böhm, Kempe and Sinopoli. Luisi has recorded Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen in Dresden (Sony 88697 084712 - see review); the same label’s Don Quixote is on SK 93100.
So it is to be expected that the orchestra that premièred nine of Strauss’s operas and with whom the composer had a strong personal and professional relationship for 60 years would make a real splash when turning to new recording ventures under its new conductor. That is certainly the case with Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen: splendid accounts both. None of these performances, however, is overly spectacular. Rather, very accomplished and even.
In fact, that distance which is necessary truly to bring out the spirit of these lush orchestral compositions is evident on this recording of the Four Last Songs and the Alpine Symphony too. These are melodious, sensitive, immensely beautiful interpretations. They make their impact more through persuasion than spectacle. The dynamic is never overdone, the orchestral tone is subtle and clean. The paces are moderate yet at the same time exciting and compelling.
Anja Harteros’s soprano - Strauss’s favourite ‘instrument’ - is dramatic and commanding without being either maudlin or mournful. Luisi has superb interpretative and conceptual control over his highly responsive forces throughout this 70-minute SACD. The pauses are right; the parts taken by soloists well executed; the beauty of the music shines through; the scene painting is not intrusive; the forward movement is convincing yet never suggests rush. These are performances which consistently present you with some new aspect of the score and which you wish would not end, no matter how well you know the music!
The Alpine Symphony was first conducted by Strauss and the ‘Dresdeners’ in 1915. It was written with them in mind; almost as if a ‘thank you’ for their successful premières of Salome, Elektra and Rosenkavalier. It’s a massive score requiring at least 125 musicians and is operatic in conception and impact. The Alpine Symphony is the apotheosis of the composer’s tone-poem technique. It’s probable that the piece was inspired at least in part by a single 12-hour trek that Strauss had taken as a child – during which he got lost! Yet it goes beyond programme music and the evocation of landscape and ‘atmospheric phenomena’ to be something of tight inner structure and great beauty – not only as themes and textures re-appear; but also as the melodies unfold with an effect in almost inverse proportion to the bluster with which a lesser composer would have approached such material.
Indeed, Fabio Luisi makes it plain that he sees the Alpine Symphony less as a ‘photographic’ representation of nature; more as a series of impressions. There is an ethereal and objective distancing between Strauss and his subject which these musicians throw into as sharp a relief as on any currently available recording. Very satisfying.
The Four Last Songs famously carry the listener with them for their sheer beauty and poignancy, regardless of how well they are actually performed. Almost. It still needs a soprano of sensitivity, directness and restraint to avoid the mawkish and jejune. It’s then that the poetry is at its best.
Whilst not commanding the heights of a Della Casa or a Schwarzkopf, Harteros sings with conviction and expressiveness. She draws on pathos, and is attentive to nuance and the sheer force of the songs. Significantly, she gives each song its due: Strauss never intended them to be grouped as a cycle. Above all, perhaps, singer and orchestra bring out the widest-ranging application of the music – to life. Not just to nature, to love, to social regret. These are songs about all human experience. And its inevitable, resigned end. Without lingering or chafing, lamenting or self-indulgence, Harteros and the Dresdeners smile, and bow gently to the inevitability of death. A humbling performance because this is how Strauss himself surely felt.
The recording on the Sony SACD is outstanding, the acoustic clean and communicative and the commentary in the accompanying booklet useful if a little hard to read in places: poor choice of background and foreground colours. This is a CD to treasure and can be safely recommended as a frontrunner in the repertoire.
Mark Sealey


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