Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Befreit, Op. 39, No. 4 [5.25]
Winterliebe, Op. 48, No. 5 [1.29]
Traum durch die Dämmerung, Op. 29, No. 1 [2.37]
Gesang der Apollopriesterin, Op. 33, No. 2 [6.49]
Arabella: “Mein Elemer!” [10.13]
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 [52.00]
Renée Fleming (soprano)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 7-8 August 2011
Booklet: English, French, German
Picture format: NTSC 16:9; Sound format: LPCM 2.0 / DTS 5.0
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish
OPUS ARTE/UNITEL CLASSICA OA1069D DVD [84.52]
It is a thrilling experience to watch Renée Fléming sing Richard Strauss accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic. Recorded live in front of a large, enthusiastic audience, the orchestra and Fleming are riveting. One can’t help but come away from these performances believing that there are no finer performers for the music of Strauss. If only the same sentiment held true for the performance of Eine Alpensinfonie - but sadly, it does not.
The opening song, Befreit, sets a Richard Dehmel love poem, which the liner-notes describe as a “deathbed declaration of lovefrom man to wife”. Winterliebe uses a text by Otto Julius Bieberbaum describing the "nature and necessity” of marriage. Traum durch die Dämmerung also turns to Bieberbaum. Here a man walks towards his beloved, the “loveliest of women” to whom he is eternally connected by a velvet thread. All three songs feature the lush orchestration and voluptuous vocal lines of Strauss at his finest. In Befreit Fleming finds just the right vocal colour to convey the opposing moods of love’s joy and of impending mortality. In the third song she constantly modifies her sound to express the complex web of emotions. Here the orchestration - by conductor Robert Heger with the approval of Strauss - fully conveys the atmosphere of the opening line, “Broad meadows in the grey twilight”. Winterliebe is Strauss at his most ebullient, a perfect musical depiction of abundant elation, and I was actually disappointed that the audience did not applaud at its conclusion. Decorum before enthusiasm, I suppose.
As pointed out by Stephen Jay-Taylor in his excellent notes, the final song of the four is really a “full-blown operatic scene”. Emanuel von Bodman’s text calls Apollo’s followers to forget every sorrow because the Holy one (Apollo) is near. They “wander in nakedness; they happily drink in the scents and sounds of their meadows,” gazing “up into the blue heights”. Strauss sets this vivid imagery with music of overt passion and sensuality, performed here with incredible virtuosity and emotional abandon. Fleming’s final selection, the aria “Mein Elemer!” from Arabella, is also similarly gorgeous. She convincingly communicates her character’s struggle to decide who she should marry, eventually setting this question aside in giddy anticipation of attending a Viennese ball.
It is a genuine pleasure to watch Fleming, acting with voice and body fully to inhabit the mood and meaning of each song. It is also enjoyable to observe how much the orchestra watch and engage with her. They obviously admire and appreciate her and respond with playing of the highest order. Thielemann proves to be a master accompanist, following Fleming every step of the way. Their enjoyment at making music together is readily apparent in their eye contact during the songs, as well as the smiles at one another in between. The applause following “Mein Elemer!” is lengthy and wholehearted. A genuine rapport between orchestra, soloist, and conductor is obvious to all.
Sadly, the second half of the programme does not reach the exalted level of the first. When Christian Thielemann came onto the international scene in the early 1990s, he was boldly proclaimed as Herbert von Karajan’s successor by Deutsche Grammophon, his (and Karajan’s) record label. Yet several artistically questionable recordings of symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann proved that claim to be foolhardy. I owned many of those recordings and found Thielemann’s interpretive ideas to be generally unconvincing and often dead wrong. He has already recorded Eine Alpensinfonie with this orchestra, a recording I used to own but have since given away. I found his interpretation wilful and micro-managed, without any sense of the work’s overall architecture. The recording itself was congested, lacking in any warmth, and presented a flat, two-dimensional sound-stage. I hoped that this new performance would correct some of these issues, and, to some extent, it does. The DVD recording is vastly superior and Thielemann displays a better sense of the work’s overall structure, with the various sections flowing into one another more organically than the earlier performance. However, the micro-managed phrasing is just as evident. In fact seems worse than ever because we can watch Thielemann manipulate phrasing in his conducting. This certainly works for some sections: the buildup to “Sunrise” is masterly, and the “Waterfall” is vividly pictorial. Yet the “Calm before the Storm” passage is lacking in atmosphere, and the storm music itself is so overly manicured - perhaps to clarify the dense counterpoint - that the music never sounds threatening! Compare this passage to Solti’s rather frantic performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, where Solti and the Bavarians conjure up a Category 4 Hurricane! Is the counterpoint as clearly laid out as in Thielemann’s performance? Absolutely not. Is Strauss’s cinematic storm music more compellingly realized? Absolutely!
The greatest disappointment comes in the “Sunset” passage, where Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic are in a class of their own. Karajan described Eine Alpensinfonie as a metaphor for a person’s life, and in particular he felt that the “Sunset” section was, in some sense, a leave-taking at the end of life. By this point in his life, Karajan was somewhat frail. His back pain had become a constant in his life, and he had to struggle walking to the podium where he had a special ledge built that would support him as he stood. His conducting was therefore far less physically involved, though just as intense. Yet, in the DVD performance there is a thrilling moment when the Berliner’s begin the long-breathed melody that winds through “Sunset”. Karajan grasps the railing of the conductor’s podium and swings his body around to the violins, encouraging them to transcend the notes on the page and express the regret, the remembrance, the resignation in this achingly chromatic music. They respond with a level of incandescent playing that has never been matched. In comparison, Thielemann’s rendering of the same music is unconvincing and meaningless. The playing is unquestionably beautiful, but soulless. Thielemann and Vienna show us a stunningly beautiful picture of the Alps. Karajan and Berlin actually make us climb the mountain.
Nevertheless, the first half of this DVD is incredible. On the evidence of this recording, Thielemann is excellent at accompanying and supporting the interpretative ideas of other performers, but problems arise when he is responsible for the interpretation. I am very glad to have this for the songs, but cannot imagine I will ever watch the Eine Alpensinfonie again. For that, I always turn to the Karajan performance, which remains in a class of its own.
David A. McConnell
Masterwork Index: Eine Alpensinfonie
I am very glad to have this for the songs, but cannot imagine I will ever watch the Eine Alpensinfonie again.