Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie Op. 64 (1911/15) [46:26]
Four symphonic interludes from Intermezzo Op. 72 (1922) [21:07] 
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, 9 and 30 April 2010 (Alpensinfonie); 2 December 2013 (Intermezzo), Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900124 [68:45]

In his review of this release Nick Barnard has this to say of Eine Alpensinfonie: “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.” I think this comment about a basic divide is spot-on. I haven’t heard the Wit recording to which Nick refers but I have heard the Nelsons and tend to share Nick’s view of it, though Nelsons is exciting and the CBSO play superbly for him. Unsurprisingly, I’d put Haitink firmly in the ‘philosophical’ camp, as evidenced either by his superb LSO Live recording (review) or his earlier Amsterdam recording (review), which I’ve owned for years and which I still rate highly. The work has come in for criticism in the past but since I like it very much I take consolation that since noted and discerning Strauss conductors such as Haitink, Karajan and Kempe have all recorded it more than once there must be some substance to it.
I find this Welser-Möst performance something of a mixed bag. The orchestra plays marvellously for him and there are some predictably fine moments. One comes early on when the BRSO depicts sunrise sonorously, their horn section sounding suitably imposing. The storm that the mountaineers encounter on the way down is vividly done. Again, near the end both the Sunset and the ‘Ausklang’ (‘Waning tones’) section that follows find the conductor distilling poetry from the music and drawing eloquent playing from the orchestra. Earlier on I found myself admiring the delicacy of ‘Auf blumigen Wesen’ (‘On flowering meadows’) and I approve of the way Welser-Möst drives the music forward when the glacier is reached.
There are disappointments, too. Chief of these is the arrival at the summit itself. It’s true that the orchestral sound is thrilling but Welser-Möst drives the music forward too quickly and as a result negates much of the grandeur. It may be that he was seeking to avoid bombastic rhetoric and, if so, that’s to be commended. However, Bernard Haitink (with the LSO) takes exactly a minute longer for this passage, maximises the grandeur of the vistas yet avoids sounding overblown. I also feel that in the moments leading up to the storm Welser-Möst’s performance doesn’t generate sufficient tension. Overall, and despite the marvellous orchestral playing – surely this is currently one of the finest European orchestras – I feel somewhat underwhelmed by this Welser-Möst reading. It’s good but it doesn’t shake my allegiance to Haitink — either of his versions, but the one on LSO Live would be my preference — or Kempe. There are two Kempe recordings available. His Dresden recording is at present only available, so far as I know, in the big Brilliant Classics box that includes all his Strauss recordings for EMI (review). If you don’t want such a large Strauss collection Kempe’s earlier recording with the Royal Philharmonic, made in 1966 for RCA Victor is available as a single-disc release from Testament (SBT-1428) and still sounds pretty good.
Welser-Most offers an interesting and fairly rare filler in the shape of the Four symphonic interludes that Strauss extracted from his opera Intermezzo. These were recorded on a separate occasion and, faced with a smaller ensemble the engineers have opted for sound that is brighter, closer and up-front. That suits the music rather well. After a vivacious opening the waltz material that forms the main body of the first piece, ‘Reisefieber und Walzerszene’ (‘Travel fever and Waltz Scene’) goes with a fine swing; the playing is excellent and the conductor invests the music with brio. The second piece, ‘Träumerei am Kamin’ (‘Dreaming by the fireside’), is delicate and relaxed at first, building to a warmly ardent climax. ‘Fröhlicher Beschluss’ (‘Happy resolution’) brings the set to an ebullient ending. These are excellent performances; Welser-Möst appears to relish the music, as do his players.
The BR Klassik sound is very good in both cases and the notes are interesting.
John Quinn
Previous reviews: Michael Cookson and Nick Barnard

Masterwork Index: Eine Alpensinfonie


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