Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie Op.64 (1915) [51:39]
Der Tanz der sieben Schleier Salome Op.54 [9:26]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 28 January, 3 February 2010 (Symphony); 10-11 November 2010 (Salome)
ORFEO C 833 111 A [62:28]

It is one of the paradoxes of musical life that certain works do not have concert planners reaching for their budgetary smelling salts. Propose a Resurrection or two, consider the odd feasting Belshazzar or see how near to the actual thousand you can get in Mahler 8 and the cheque book opens effortlessly. Need a third clarinet or a sixth horn elsewhere and the sharp intake of breath is instantaneous. Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is one of those works which seem to be used to prove an orchestra’s musical and/or financial virility. Hence the time, really not so long ago, when it was a rarity in both the concert hall let alone on disc, is long gone. Now versions by just about every major orchestra in the world are easily available. In the early days of digital it provided a perfect demonstration vehicle for the potential of CD and Karajan’s 1981[?] recording remains the touchstone for many. One way of squaring the budgetary circle for such a vast work is to play it in concert and release the performance on disc. So now there is a plethora of ‘live’ versions – often on orchestra’s ‘own’ labels – from the LSO, the Concertgebouw, the RLPO and even Milwaukee. That is a list off the top of my head with no research. To this must now be added the present version from the CBSO under their dynamic principal conductor Andris Nelsons.

Some things to establish immediately – this is world class orchestral playing caught in excellently detailed and wide-ranging engineering. The audience is all but silent and the standard of the playing is superb - almost fluff-free. Another curiosity about this work is that despite its increased popularity note-writers seem obliged to make apologies on its behalf. As Strauss’s last major orchestra-only score it is seen by some as one last great egotistical explosion of instrumental excess. Certainly the required instrumentation would tend to support that view: quadruple wind and brass, eight horns, organ and celesta, two harps, double timpani and a percussion section including thunder-sheet and wind machine. Oh, and I forgot to mention the additional off-stage twelve horns and other brass! Hard-hearted the performer or indeed listener not seduced by the sheer weight of sound this number of players can generate. But there are two distinct approaches to this work. First there’s the pictorial. This emphasises the programmatic elements as well as the philosophical and finds parallels between the ascent of the mountain and the Nietzschean ideals of man and superman. This latter approach directly harks back to the earlier Also Sprach Zarathustra which some listeners might not consider a good thing. Personally, and this really is a personal view, I prefer the more epic-philosophical approach. Otherwise, to my mind the work becomes a series of brilliantly executed postcards-in-sound. Is there any other composition that encompasses everything from cow pastures to waterfalls, glaciers, thunderstorms and panoramic views in the musical equivalent of cinemascope within a fifty minute time-frame? By no means does Nelson neglect the poetic but the abiding impression of this performance is the work’s vibrant dynamic energy. Nelson’s climber attacks the ascent [track 3] with purpose. An abiding impression for me was that of a good brisk walk wearing sensible shoes. Most performances seem to come in around the 50–52 minute mark. Nelson runs at just over 51:30 with both Haitink in the recent LSO ‘live’ and the aforementioned Karajan – neither exactly renowned speed merchants – hovering around 50 minutes dead. So if it is not by tempo alone there is something else here that somehow makes Nelson feel brusque. The key is that during the more reflective passages he takes a beautiful but objective stance as if ‘indulging’ himself in the passing beauties would be to sentimentalise them. If I were to go further I would characterise it as verging on the impatient - almost curt. Certainly when one compares this to the version on Naxos from Antoni Wit and his Staatskapelle Weimar the difference is striking. By no means in every passage but at key moments Wit is happy to ‘stand and stare’. Perhaps I should make my allegiance clear here – I think that Wit’s performance is the finest I know of the work and one of the finest discs bar none that Naxos has produced. Undoubtedly he is helped by an orchestra and engineering perfectly aligned to his conception of the work. With much less inner detail than Nelson and a sonority based on mahogany-dark lower registers Wit – at over 54 minutes – opts for a magisterial philosophical view.

But it would be very wrong to imply that Nelson’s is anything but a legitimate view executed with breath-taking brilliance. For certain I have never heard the (in)famous storm sequence played – or engineered – with such virtuosic precision. The CBSO hurtle down the alpine slopes pursued by a musical maelstrom. Ironically the more detail you hear the more this sequence becomes above all a study in orchestration. The jigsaw puzzle of how Strauss achieved the effects he sought is laid bare but it does then become a series of effects albeit very exciting ones. The final return to the night music with which the piece opens is beautifully done but to my ear without the extra-musical valedictory sense Wit achieves. For CD programme-planners this piece provides a bit of a dilemma – to couple or not to couple. In the days of LP, aside from the minor(!) detail of having to split the piece on the summit no-one would complain about this occupying a full disc. In the days of the 80 minute CD a fiftyish minute symphony is deemed short measure. But I would argue that to appreciate this work fully it needs to stand – mountain-like – alone. Wit on Naxos does just that. Orfeo, in their wisdom, have added a nine minute filler taken in the form of Salome’s Dance of the seven veils. In value terms it adds little to the disc and in musical terms fixes Nelson’s Alpine Symphony in the realm of the material. However – I have to say that I have never heard as exciting or as passionate a performance. To be honest it is usually one of the few Strauss works I tend to skip over on disc – it’s the musical equivalent of always the bridesmaid never the bride - perhaps a rather too virginal analogy given the musical content! Classical music doesn’t do graphic sex very well and when it does – Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or Walton’s Troilus and Cressida or Ginastera’s Bomarzo the establishment shuffles its collective feet in uneasy discomfort. But Nelson whips up a frenzy that is really impressive. Here the quality of the playing and recording comes to the fore with fantastic clarity and attack. It remains a perverse coupling but a rather splendid one. Orfeo, in their wisdom, tack onto the end – and give a separate track to – 1’20” of fairly dutiful applause. Given that the two works are from different concerts which work are the audience applauding? Do we really need such an extended amount even then? I have no problem with live recordings, audience noise or applause on CDs but surely a quick fade-out after 10 or 15 seconds is ample. The liner-note comes in three languages and in the English translation is written using that rather opaque but verbose style often favoured by German writers.

I can imagine this disc finding huge favour with collectors who prefer a modernist/objective approach to Strauss or those who wish to intimidate their neighbours with great walls of orchestral sound. I must be getting even more sentimental in my old age and prefer something slightly less Olympic from my mountains.

Nick Barnard

I have to say that I have never heard as exciting or as passionate a performance.