In many ways this recording of the mighty Alpine Symphony
encapsulates my general response to the work of conductor Franz Welser-Most. Carefully prepared and very well executed, moments of real beauty but the whole simply does not add up to a version able to displace old favourites. To my ear Welser-Most cannot generate the musical tension and expectation that leads to glorious release. The opening sections are a case in point - a perfectly good "night" but "sunrise" does not lead inexorably to the first of many - too many? - climaxes that characterise this work.
I have written before that this is one of those few works that seem impervious to the concerns of programme planners' budgets with orchestras and conductors wanting to prove their technical and musical virility. Approaches to the work seem to sit either side of a basic divide: on the one hand, present it as a series of technicolour picture postcards of a day in the Alps; on the other adopt a more philosophical line taking the Alpine journey as a metaphor for man's life and aspirations from birth to death. Personally, I prefer the latter - as well presented as any on a superb Naxos disc from Antoni Wit conducting the Weimar Staatskapelle. The former approach is epitomised by the recent Andris Nelsons' recording with the CBSO - a very dynamic and hugely virtuosic performance but one that sacrifices poise for the sheer athletic delight in its execution. Welser-Most sits rather blandly somewhere in the middle. Take for a moment the predictably excellent and idiomatic playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as a given, then in fact there are few if any passages that outshine the many rivals - the solo oboe's reverie just before the summit is attained is very beautiful. This orchestra recorded the work with Solti on Decca and Maazel on RCA. Aside from engineering which allows the Bavarian heavy brass and double basses to colour "night" to far greater effect, Solti, at a markedly slower pace creates for the listener so much more evocatively the sense of transition to the first light of dawn. Maazel too creates a lot more atmosphere from the orchestral murk - a sense of forms gaining substance out of the pre-dawn gloom.
Competence rather than inspiration marks this new performance at nearly every turn. The off-stage horns are reasonably well handled - truly distant but at a tempo that makes their hunting-horn calls rather rum-ti-tum. Nelsons positively strides up the mountain with very distant horns. Kempe's RPO are truly wild huntsmen - his version is one of the very best paced; knowing when to press on and when to stand and stare. The technical recording is exciting if not very subtle but this is a version to treasure. At every turn the phrasing has a natural spontaneity and connection that leaves Welser-Most in the realm of the functional and the mundane. DG's early digital recording of Karjan and the Berlin Philharmonic suffers from some over-brilliance and lack of subtlety too (in technical terms) but I far prefer the level of engagement from all parties. Two other DG versions from Thielemann in Vienna and Sinopoli in Dresden reinforce the opinion that there is a special sonority to orchestras bred in the Austro-German tradition that particularly suits this music.
The summit is another passage that defines the success of any performance. It is here that Nelsons is just a fraction too swift and Wit a master. Kempe both with the RPO and as part of his superb Dresden set on Warner/EMI shows again a perfect balance between urgency and repose. With Welser-Most I was underwhelmed - again good playing and perfectly acceptable recording but this of all passages should be glorious. There is a danger in the work that the second is quite literally a retreat from the summit and all that has gone before. For all of Strauss's extraordinary skill handling both the orchestra and the material they play much has already been heard. Nelsons - aided by the Orfeo engineers produce the most apocalyptic thunderstorm - the organ registering with foundation-threatening power. On the current disc in no way is it nearly as dynamic. Interestingly, at the very last, Welser-Most produces a very poetic Epilogue and Night but this is too little too late.
The new disc offers a substantial and relatively rare coupling in the form of the Four Symphonic Interludes from the opera Intermezzo
. The recording was made more than two and a half years after the main work and receives a substantially better performance. Then again, the competition is far less stiff. Many of the doyens of Strauss orchestral works old and new from Reiner and Szell to Zinman and Kempe did not deign to include it in their surveys of Strauss's orchestral works. However, the orchestra sounds more engaged and the engineering is closer and more vibrant - more dynamic than the Detroit Symphony for Järvi on Chandos or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for Stuart Challender on ABC Classics. Even they are outshone by a scintillating version from the Bamberg Symphoniker on Berlin Classics under Manfred Honeck. Next to Honeck Welser-Most sounds just fast - often excitingly so - but Honeck, much like Kempe in the main work, finds an ebb and flow which is very engaging. The second section Dreaming by the fireside
revisits the passionate ardour of the (in)famous bedroom section of the Sinfonia Domestica
. Here the sheer weight of the Bavarian string tone pays great dividends - it never ceases to amaze me how Strauss seemed able to call on music of such surging intensity almost on a whim. Fine though this is as a performance I have to say that the Bamberg disc is the most remarkable version of this very enjoyable work that I have heard. So, sadly for Welser-Most, it's another case of not being a definitive performance.
For the rest, the booklet is printed in German and English and contains an interesting essay about Strauss and Nietzsche. The performances were recorded live but any audience noise is all but absent and no applause is included. As mentioned, engineering is perfectly good without being exceptional. Nothing is wrong here but it would be very hard to favour this disc in preference to a dozen or so pre-existing versions.
Previous review: Michael Cookson
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