Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1911-15) [51:03]
Göteborgs Symfoniker/Kent Nagano
rec. November 2014, Göteborger Konzerthaus
FARAO CLASSICS B108091 [51:03]

In January 2014 I had the rare opportunity to hear Eine Alpensinfonie in a thrilling performance at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. It was a joint venture by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hallé under Juanjo Mena. I say ‘rare’ as this tone poem, the last of Strauss’s large orchestral works, calls for 130-140 players, one of the reasons it’s not programmed that often. The augmented orchestra includes wind machine, thunder machine, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cowbells, tam-tam and organ.

That performance was timed to coincide with the composer’s 150th anniversary. Likewise this recording celebrates that milestone. Kent Nagano and the Göteborgs Symfoniker have been working together since 1993, when they collaborated on Mahler’s Third Symphony. In 2013, Nagano was appointed Principal Guest Conductor. His Strauss credentials are impressive, dating back to his Music Directorship of the Bayerische Staatsoper. He also recorded this work in Berlin in 2006 (review). The Gotenberg players can also claim a distinguished Strauss tradition, under such conductors as Wilhelm Stenhammar, Sergiu Comissiona, Sixten Ehrling, Neeme Järvi and Gustavo Dudamel. However, it was Otmar Suitner who introduced the orchestra to the Op. 64 in 1975, and since then it has become an audience favourite. Nagano’s idea of a Strauss project is compelling, and this is the first release in a projected series from Farao Classics.

Eine Alpensinfonie occupied the composer from 1911 to 1915, though very early sketches date back as far as 1902. It is dedicated ‘To Graf von Seebach and the Dresden Hofkapelle,’ and it was premiered by the Dresden Hofkapelle on 28 October 1915, at the Berlin Philharmonie, with Strauss himself on the podium. The story depicts the experiences encountered while climbing an Alpine mountain in eleven hours, from daybreak just before dawn to the following nightfall. It is structured in twenty-two continuous sections.

What I find appealing in Nagano’s reading is that he achieves a performance of seamless cohesion with no sense of sequence. Neither does he take a bombastic approach but instinctively paints a canvas of delicate colours and subtle nuances. Under his inspirational conducting, the orchestral playing is enthralling, with plush strings, diaphanous woodwinds and burnished brass. As a whole, this stands shoulder to shoulder with my favourite version from Karajan and the Berliners.

I love the way Nagano evokes the Sunrise, expressing the awe, wonder and rapture of this radiant event. Then the climbers begin their purposeful ascent, with grit and determination. On entry into the forest again there’s wonderment, and in the Flowering Meadows the orchestra savour the lyrical moment. As in the Karajan performance, the calm before the storm is particularly effective. Nagano conjures an atmosphere of threat, portent and foreboding. Then the storm is unleashed with thrilling intensity. Ausklang (Quiet settles) is sensuous and lovingly phrased, and Night dies away, with breathtaking control, holding your attention to the very end.

This is a finely engineered recording in vivid and immediate sound. The sumptuous sonics invest it with almost tangible presence. Orchestral detail is clearly defined, essential, in my view, in a richly textured score such as this. I’m pleased that all twenty-two sections have been tracked separately, as this is not always the case. Of my other recordings: Thielemann (DG) has 17 tracks, Haitink (Philips / Newton) 21 and Karajan (DG - Sony DVD) unfortunately only 1.

On this evidence the omens look good for Farao’s projected Strauss cycle.

Stephen Greenbank

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