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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1911/15) [51.00]
Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24 (1888/89) [24.10]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 13-15 October 2016 Philharmonie, Munich (Op. 64); 24-28 February 2014, Herkulessaal, Munich (Op. 24)
BR KLASSIK 900148 [75.10]

Munich certainly loves the music of one of its finest sons, Richard Strauss, and the city orchestras don’t need much of an excuse to programme his music. Here the BR Klassik label present two very different Strauss tone poems the Eine Alpensinfonie with its massive forces and Tod und Verklärung for large orchestra, played by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under its chief conductor Mariss Jansons, one of the most respected maestros on the international stage.

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss in 2014 marked a substantial number of performances of works by the great Bavarian composer all over the world. Here, from those celebrations, is a live performance of Tod und Verklärung from the Herkulessaal, Munich, and a very recent 2016 live recording of Eine Alpensinfonie given at Philharmonie. Only last year BR Klassik released a live 2010 recording of this work also with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Franz Welser-Möst from Herkulessaal Munich.

A Strauss biographer described an incident when the fourteen year old Richard Strauss had been climbing Heimgarten 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. Years later 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 composing Eine Alpensinfonie in 1911 working on it intermittently until 1915. The last of his tone-poems and requiring a massive orchestra of some 130 players, it divides opinion. The score frequently receives an unfavourable press and is often belittled and not taken seriously. Some 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 of the Alpine expedition. 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 at the (Alte) Philharmonie in Berlin in October 1915 with the orchestra of the Dresden Hofkapelle.

At the Philharmonie, Munich, Jansons demonstrates masterly control of his massive orchestral forces securing an awe-inspiring performance unwavering in its passionate intensity and sheer grandeur. The blazing golden orchestral tutti that so splendidly evokes Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) is striking. The section Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) is magnificent, commencing with a spectacular trombone fanfare followed by a contrasting calm episode for oboe solo over tremolo violins. The strikingly dramatic climax on reaching the peak of the mountain sends a shiver down the spine. Amid all this high drama the quality of fine detail is easy to miss. Particularly notable are the off-stage brass, a most sensitively weighted cowbell sequence, bucolic violin melodies evoking the scent of flower filled meadows, a cascade of tumbling harp and violin glissandi and a magical short section for cor anglais over the organ. Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture) is memorable with its evocative birdcalls from the clarinet and flute, bleating sheep on oboe and E-flat clarinet and the yodelling oboe. Although this section is played in a more idiosyncratic and rather earthy manner than I am used to, I did finally warm to the depiction.

There have been a large number of recordings of the Eine Alpensinfonie over the years including a 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 from EMI in 1971 Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden at the Lukaskirche. These are both excellent recordings, thrilling to experience, well recorded and eminently recommendable. In addition I recall rushing out to buy on vinyl the splendid account conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded in 1980 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. High on splendour and artistry, Karajan’s players are in commanding form and the glossy strings in particular display their magnificence throughout. There is much to admire in the exhilarating live account from Christian Thielemann with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 2000 at the Musikverein on Deutsche Grammophon. Released in 2014 and worthy of significant praise too is the invigorating 2010 account from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Franz Welser-Möst on BR Klassik. On this 2016 account Jansons with the same orchestra, in sterling form, and join the ranks of those recommendable recordings.

Strauss wrote the tone poem Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) in 1888/89. He depicts the last moments of an artist on his deathbed reflecting on his youth. At the behest of Strauss, his friend Alexander Ritter wrote an interpretation of Tod und Verklarung in a poem; in effect a programme note. Jansons and his Bavarian players, this time in the Herkulessaal, provide an exquisitely paced and affecting performance of the score creating a glorious wash of orchestral sound. This is one of the finest performances of Tod und Verklarung I have heard. Of the competitors admiration is due to Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker for their plush 1972/3 and 1982 accounts both on Deutsche Grammophon. There are two more admirable accounts from the Staatskapelle Dresden that I enjoy playing: first with Rudolf Kempe conducting at the Lukaskirche, Dresden in 1971 on EMI and second under Karl Böhm recorded live in 1972 at the Salzburg festival on Deutsche Grammophon. Worthy of praise too is a striking and much more recent account on Reference Recordings from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck recorded in 2012 at Heinz Hall Pittsburgh.

There is little to choose between the sound quality of these two concert recordings at two different Munich concert halls. Both are wholly satisfying, being clear, quite warm and well balanced. There is only minor extraneous sound with applause taken out of Eine Alpensinfonie and retained on Tod und Verklarung. The notes contains track numbering errors on the rear inlay card but are otherwise fine.

In summary BR Klassik has issued a highly desirable album of Richard Strauss tone poems performed by an orchestra who knows his music so well.

Michael Cookson



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