2014 marks the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss and performances of Eine Alpensinfonie are frequently seen on orchestra programmes. Already I have attended a performance played by the combined forces of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Hallé under Juanjo Mena in Manchester. In a few days time I hope to attend a further performance in Dresden by the Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemann.
A Strauss biographer describes an incident when the fourteen year old Richard Strauss had been climbing the Heimgarten mountain in the Bavarian Alps. During a long, gruelling day Strauss experienced a frightening yet thrilling adventure which included getting lost and being caught in a thunderstorm. In addition at his beautiful villa in Garmisch, Strauss had a magnificent view of the Alpine peaks, the Zugspitze and the Wetterstein, from his study window. Strauss’s love of the Bavarian Alps was enduring and he never forgot his teenage Alpine adventure. Thirty years later he illustrated his experiences in music with Eine Alpensinfonie. The passion Strauss felt for the natural world and his adored mountains was intensified by the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Strauss started composition the Symphony in 1911 working on it intermittently until its completion in 1915. The last of his tone-poems, requiring a massive orchestra, it divides opinion. The score frequently receives an unfavourable press and is often belittled and not taken seriously. Many commentators consider it to be ‘over the top’, too self-indulgent with an excess of corny effects and lacking in melodic invention. Although cast in one continuous movement, Eine Alpensinfonie has a distinct programme of 22 sections which describes each phase. The listener is taken on an epic journey, beginning at night, experiencing sunrise, journeying through the adventures of the day to sunset and concluding at night.
Strauss himself gave the première with the orchestra of the Dresden Hofkapelle at the (Alte) Philharmonie in October 1915 in Berlin. Guest conductor Franz Welser-Möst takes the baton with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks for this live recording given in 2010 in Munich. A well respected conductor on the international stage the Austrian-born Welser-Möst is the musical director of the Vienna State Opera and principal conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Welser-Möst shows masterly control of large orchestral forces and the momentum he secures speaks of an awe-inspiring force, overwhelming in its passionate intensity and sheer grandeur. With such consistently impressive playing it is hard to single out particular sections. I should however mention the blazing golden orchestral tutti so gloriously evoking Sunrise, the magnificent section On the Summit commencing with a spectacular trombone fanfare followed by a contrasting calm episode for oboe solo over tremolo violins. After this there’s the strikingly dramatic climax on reaching the peak of the mountain: On the Summit. Amid all this high drama the quality of fine detail is easy to miss. We should not forget the effective off-stage brass, a most sensitively weighted cowbell sequence and bucolic violin melodies evoking the scent of flower filled meadows. Also notable are a cascade of tumbling harp and violin glissandi, a magical short section for cor anglais over the organ, evocative birdcalls from the clarinet and flute and the yodelling oboe.
There have been many fine recordings over the years and many readers will be familiar with accounts from Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden from 1971 on EMI and also the historic 1941 Munich recording of the composer conducting the Bayerische Staatskapelle on Dutton. Two of the best known accounts are those from Karl Böhm and the Staatskapelle Dresden that he recorded in 1957 at the Dresden Kreuzkirche on Deutsche Grammophon and Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden from 1971 at the Dresden Lukaskirche. These are both excellent recordings, thrilling and well recorded. However my long time favourite that I recall rushing out to buy on vinyl is conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded in 1980 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. High on virtuosity and artistry, Karajan’s players are in commanding form and the strings in particular display their magnificence throughout. There is much to admire also in the exhilarating live account from Christian Thielemann with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 2000 at the Musikverein, Vienna on Deutsche Grammophon. Also well worth hearing is the stimulating 2005 Weimar account from the Staatskapelle Weimar under Antoni Wit on Naxos.
This BR Klassik release also includes the set of four symphonic interludes from Strauss’s eighth opera Intermezzo. This opera was premiered in Dresden in 1924 conducted by Fritz Busch. The four interludes are a substantial fill-up in which Welser-Möst secures a crisply sparkling and well sprung reading.
The BR Klassik engineers have delivered glowing sound, cool, clear and well balanced. These are live recordings but all applause has been removed. The level of excellence in this recording is as elevated as any other account of the Symphony in the catalogue. Do join the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Runfunks conducted by Franz Welser-Möst on this spectacular Alpine journey.