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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
An Alpine Symphony, op.64 (1914) [45:18]
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Franz Welser-Möst
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Te Deum (1884) [20:43]
Jane Eaglen (soprano); Birgit Remmert (mezzo); Deon van der Walt (tenor); Alfred Muff (baritone)
Mozart-Chor Linz; London Philharmonic orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. 14 March 2005, Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, (Strauss); 2-4 October 1995, All Saints Church Tooting Graveney, London (Bruckner)
EMI CLASSICS 2081172 [66:36] 
Experience Classicsonline

The only obvious link between the performances coupled here is the conductor, Franz Welser-Möst. The recordings were made nearly ten years apart, with different orchestras. As for the pieces themselves, the first is by the implacably atheist Strauss, the other by the deeply devout Bruckner. Nonetheless there is a strong unseen link in the person of Richard Wagner, whose influence is to be felt in each work, though in very different ways. In Strauss it is principally the orchestration, with its rich string writing, and multiple horn fanfares recalling the world of The Ring. There is even an explicit reference to Wagner’s Magic Fire music from Die Walküre, appropriately enough in the episode Auf dem Gipfel (On the summit, track 14, 0:25). In Bruckner, it is the Wagnerian harmonic language which colours much of the music, though naturally the orchestration is also influenced. Despite all that, though, it is still a somewhat uncomfortable coupling, and perhaps the best one can say about the disc is that it is undoubtedly good value, for most recordings of the Alpine Symphony offer that work alone.

The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is one of the world’s finest youth orchestras, with young players drawn from all over Europe. By any standards, this is a thrilling performance of the Alpine Symphony, which has to be rated as among the more demanding works in the orchestral repertoire. The symphony tells the story of a party of hikers who set out to climb an alpine peak. Starting from the Stygean gloom before dawn, we follow them on their journey to the summit and back, encountering a violent storm en route home. It’s an ideal subject for Strauss, for the programme provides a ready-made structure, with ample opportunities for graphically descriptive orchestration, while the philosophical aspect – the journey as a metaphor for human life etc. – is too obvious to labour. 

The playing is remarkably fine throughout, and Welser-Möst steers the young musicians through the work with purpose and enthusiasm. Strings produce a rich, luxuriant tone, intensely expressive where needed, woodwind solos are characterfully projected, and the brass playing is confident and stylish. Can you feel a ‘but’ coming? Well, there are a couple as a matter of fact; firstly, the recording. Granted this was a live event, which took place in the Vienna Musikverein during a tour of the orchestra in 2005. Even so, the balance is very eccentric, with sudden close-ups of individual instruments at, for example, track 10 around 0:20 and onwards, with woodwind and first horn suddenly thrust under our noses. Important detail in heavy brass often loses out; take for example the powerful (should be) entry of trombones near the beginning of track 13 – virtually inaudible. And it’s the same story in the storm, though here it is, I have to say, wonderful to be able to hear all the details of scoring that are often completely lost amongst deafening percussion, organ, wind machine and the rest. 

The other ‘but’ concerns Welser-Möst’s tempi, which are on the swift side throughout, not necessarily a problem But in one place - the great peroration at the centre of the work, to be found at track 13, 1:45 - he virtually bolts forward, robbing the music of most of its grandeur; very strange. Looking at the score, I have to confess that Strauss is not clear here; he simply indicates that the music is to be felt as 2 beats to the bar, which implies a quicker tempo than that adopted by most conductors. The acid test, though, is that the music sounds rushed, and does not seem to me to realise adequately Strauss’s indication of Maëstoso (majestically). 

Not a great or definitive version of this symphony, then, but an interesting and exciting one, and of great interest to Strauss lovers. The Bruckner Te Deum is more straightforward, for this is a highly commendable reading. Welser-Möst paces the work splendidly, and has not only the LPO, but a fine, young sounding choir in the Mozart-Chor Linz. The sopranos are able to negotiate the often cruelly high writing with apparent ease – for example the passage at track 27 around 4:00 - though their tone is sometimes lacking in colour. The team of soloists is equally impressive, with Jane Eaglen and tenor Deon van der Walt in particularly good voice. 

Some slight reservations but a worthwhile issue nevertheless, and great value.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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