The Alpine Symphony
is one of Strauss’s most glorious creations, a metaphysical journey as much as a physical one, and a work that gives conductors and orchestras a chance to show off their skills. I well remember Herbert von Karajan’s early digital recording which, despite its rather aggressive sound, captured the sheer excitement and majesty of this climb. There are other contenders, among them Kempe, Solti and Ashkenazy, but this is a piece that cries out for a top-notch recording. It’s certainly done well on SACD, with versions from Thielemann – the disc last sighted on Amazon Marketplace at an eye-watering £107 – Luisi, Jansons, Bychkov and now Haitink.
Haitink’s Strauss has always been well regarded, and the recent Eloquence reissue of his Don Quixote
– reminded me why. There’s a warmth and humanity in that performance that is rare indeed, qualities that don’t necessarily spring to mind when it comes to Strauss’s other blockbusters. Given that Haitink, now in his 80s, is one of music’s most reserved and self-effacing maestros, I did wonder what he would bring to the Alpine Symphony,
a work he has recorded before (Philips 416156). And what about the infamous Barbican acoustic, whose unmistakable sound signature has diluted my enjoyment of earlier LSO Live issues?
First impressions are encouraging: the sustained introduction to Night full and fluid, the rasp of the lower brass well caught. This is clearly going to be a ‘real world’ performance, long on substance and short on rhetoric. To paraphrase Hopkins, one can really feel ‘the fell of night’ here, Haitink moving implacably towards that splendid sunrise. Goodness, the LSO sound magnificent at this point, a reminder that on a good night they are truly a world-class band. And Haitink is no slouch either, preparing for the ascent with astonishing vigour and a strong sense of purpose, both vital if the symphony’s long span isn’t to buckle and sag.
The on- and off-stage brass are simply glorious, Haitink making sure they never sound crude or overbearing. And the orchestral surge as our intrepid climber plunges into the thickets is just as thrilling. The recording adds a welcome glow to the strings and woodwind. Haitink finds a deep stillness here, a pause for reflection if you like, before the sudden roar of the waterfall. Just listen to those beautifully balanced harps that conjure up the apparitions glimpsed in its spray. Here one realises what Haitink brings to this performance, a nobility, an ease of heart, that one associates more with Strauss in his later years. But still the heart beats strongly, urged ever upwards by those soaring strings.
Haitink may be reticent but he still finds something thrillingly elemental about the glacier and the precarious ascent that follows. True, others may find more raw excitement at moments like these, but Haitink’s unhurried, more spacious reading is every bit as rewarding, the view from the summit as stupendous as I’ve ever heard it. And what amplitude as the full orchestra bursts forth, Haitink having scaled the big moments with care, each one more imposing than the last. If you’re worried about the organ don’t be, because it’s got more than enough heft for this piece – and it’s in tune, too.
I can’t remember when I last heard the elegy played with such radiance, or the approaching storm was heralded with such care. Haitink brings out those ravishing colours as only a seasoned Straussian can. As for the storm it comes across with astonishing depth and detail on both CD and SACD, but for the last ounce of terror the latter is hard to beat. Make no mistake, though, Haitink never goes for the cheap thrill, so that when the climaxes arrive they have been meticulously prepared for. That said, nothing prepared me for what must be one of the most gorgeous moments in all Strauss, the sunset. Even though Karajan does it so well – what intensity – Haitink is in another league altogether. What nobility and splendour, and how unbearably moving.
One may think it’s all downhill from there but this performance just gets better and better. Warning
has the LSO playing like angels, the conductor lofty and far-sighted as he guides us towards night once more. The hush that falls is so profound that applause would only have destroyed the spell. Thankfully there is none, and the symphony fades, as it should, into the inkiest silence.
Kent Nagano’s DVD of this symphony – review
– was one of my Recordings of the Year
in 2007. It’s still a vigorous and exciting performance, certainly that of a younger man, but Haitink brings to this score an accumulated wisdom and insight that casts this work in an entirely new perspective. What’s most remarkable is there’s no sign of the expressive overkill or self-indulgence that advancing years – and perhaps a sense of complacency – can bring. I still can’t get on with his Mahler or Bruckner, but I have to admit this new disc is a magnificent achievement all-round and, quite possibly, the performance of a lifetime.