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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1911-15) [52:39]
Symphonische Fantasie aus Die Frau ohne Schatten (1947) [23:29]
São Paolo Symphony Orchestra/Frank Shipway.
rec. February - March, 2012, Sala São Paolo, Brazil. DSD
BIS BIS-SACD-1950 [77:04] 

The British conductor, Frank Shipway, a pupil of both Barbirolli and Igor Markevitch, has had a successful career but, not for the first time with a British conductor, most of his success has been outside the UK. I believe I’m correct in believing that he has never held a permanent post with a British orchestra or opera house though, of course, that may be by choice. His discography is not extensive but it includes a recording of Mahler’s Fifth that was esteemed very highly in these pages by Tony Duggan.
This SACD enterprisingly - and appropriately - pairs Strauss’s most extravagant tone poem with music from his most extravagant opera. Eine Alpensinfonie is regarded in certain quarters as something of a behemoth but several distinguished Strauss interpreters have performed and recorded it, most notably Bernard Haitink and Rudolf Kempe. Haitink, who led a memorable account of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic as recently as the 2012 Prom concerts (review), made a very fine recording of the piece back in 1985 (review). I share Dan Morgan’s enthusiasm for Haitink’s subsequent LSO Live recording from 2008 (review), though on this occasion I’ve used the earlier recording for comparisons because I’ve known it for much longer. Nor should one forget that other master Straussian, Kempe. He included it in his wonderful EMI survey of all the Strauss orchestral music (review) but there’s an even earlier recording by him, which, in LP format, represented my first encounter with the work years ago. That 1966 RCA recording is now available on Testament (SBT 1428).
Malcolm MacDonald contributes a very fine booklet note for this new BIS recording and, in sketching out the background to the composition, makes clear that it is much more than a nature painting. That said, in this score Strauss colourfully and graphically illustrates in sound a mountain expedition and the alpine scenery. Shipway and the fine Brazilian orchestra - who I bet were encountering the work for the first time - bring it to live vividly. It’s interesting that Shipway takes a little longer over the score than either Haitink or Kempe. Where Shipway takes 52:39 Kempe takes 48:49 and Haitink 49:32 (Haitink’s 2008 version plays for 50:20). To be honest, I wasn’t aware of excessively broad tempi anywhere in Shipway’s interpretation though he does draw out both the penultimate ‘Ausklang’ section and the Sunset section that precedes it a little more than his rivals.
Throughout the journey up and down the mountain I find Shipway a trustworthy and reliable guide. For instance, after night has given way to a radiant sunrise, he sets off on the ascent (track 3) vigorously and purposefully; this is a confident mountaineer. When the summit is reached it’s easy for a conductor to fall into the trap of grandiloquence. I don’t believe Shipway errs in this regard any more than do his two illustrious rival climbers. The Brazilian performance is majestic at the summit, powered by some sumptuous playing and in the succeeding ‘Vision’ section this very rhetorical music is spaciously delivered.
On the way down Shipway whips up a tempestuous and tumultuous storm - the wind machine is deployed to excellent effect here - and this graphic passage comes across very well. Kempe is equally fine in this passage, getting the RPO to play with great bite, while Haitink leads a performance of great thrust and excitement. For Strauss enthusiasts the ‘Ausklang’ is a wonderful section, a “serenely ecstatic epilogue” in Malcolm MacDonald’s words. This is echt Strauss, and Shipway and his orchestra deliver an outstanding account of it. My ear was caught particularly by the rapturous violin counter-melody (track 21, from 2:26); this is beautifully played. Kempe is very successful here; apparently, he’d only conducted the score for the first time a few days before the recording was made but you’d never know. His is a humane, wise epilogue. Haitink is glorious at this point; his solo horn rings out superbly in the Concertgebouw acoustic. Shipway’s performance ends, as it began over 50 minutes before, with the music sinking into the enveloping depths of the night.
Eine Alpensinfonie is a spectacular, technicolour score that cries out for the benefits of modern recording technology. The BIS engineers have done it full justice. For example there’s superb body and definition in the hushed start - and that’s a tribute to the players also. The power of the glacier is amply conveyed, though this was one of a few passages in which I’d have liked to hear a bit more of the organ. One puzzling issue arises in the section ‘Auf der Alm’. I simply can’t hear the important cowbell part: indeed, I wonder if it has been omitted. You can certainly hear the contribution of the bells in the other recordings under consideration. It’s a pity because hereabouts the Brazilian orchestra’s playing has pleasing refinement and delicacy. However, overall the recorded sound is excellent: it’s rich, present and lots of detail registers - something else for which Shipway and the orchestra must take their share of the credit.
The choice of the orchestral tapestry that Strauss himself wove towards the end of his life from his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (1914-19) is an enterprising one. Even by Strauss’s standards the orchestration is colourful; it’s also inventive. Much of the Symphonische Fantasie is derived from music associated with Barak the dyer and his wife. In this piece also the São Paolo orchestra des very well indeed. The gently lyrical string episode that occupies most of our initial attention (to 3:09) is very nicely done and, indeed, the playing in the first nine minutes or so is excellent. An extended, mellow trombone solo (from 10:39) represents Barak. One wonders, given the nature of the musical material, why Strauss didn’t allot this to his trademark French horn but perhaps he considered the earthier sound of the trombone to be more appropriate to Barak’s character. The end of that solo ushers in a passage in Strauss’s most richly lyrical vein and the splendid playing and superb recording allows one to enjoy this indulgent music to the full. The passage between 17:01 and 21:00 is Strauss at his most sumptuous after which the music ends quietly, bathed in a gentle glow. Once again, I’m sure this music will have been unfamiliar to the orchestra but they play it as to the manner born.
This is a super disc. The sound is magnificent - I listened to the disc as a CD - and the performances of both pieces are very fine indeed. I shan’t be discarding Kempe in Eine Alpensinfonie though his recording, while good, is now starting to show its age. Still less am I ready to part with either Haitink traversal. However, Frank Shipway has certainly earned his mountain guide’s badge and his place alongside Haitink and Kempe as an intrepid Alpine explorer.
John Quinn  

Masterwork Index: Eine Alpensinfonie