Richard STRAUSS(1864-1949) Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1911-15) [51:54] Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 10: Adagio (1910) [26:33]
European Union Youth Orchestra/James Judd
rec. 1991/2, Bolzano Cathedral, Italy. DDD ALTO ALC1346 [78:27]
I have a great enthusiasm for this, the last of Richard Strauss’ tone poems and have some dozen versions on my shelves. The latest addition to my collection was Mariss Jansons’ superb recording – his fourth - on the BR Klassik label, but in truth I could endorse at least half a dozen more as “best”, including those by Karajan, Kempe, Shipway, Mehta, Maazel and Thielemann. Now I may unhesitatingly add this super-bargain Alto release to that list, not least for the sumptuousness of the sound and the virtuosity of the youthful orchestra.
It is still the case that in some quarters this score is derided as prolix, flashy and meretricious: “musical onomatopoeia” being one of the more scornful dismissals I have heard, and “jejune travelogue” being another, although it seems to me that one might just as easily tar the “Pastoral Symphony” with the same brush. Opprobrium towards this work and accusations that the composer had a weakness for bombast are hardly new phenomena; in his excellent accompanying notes, James Murray quotes Strauss’ librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal as having a poor opinion of the music Strauss had composed up until the start of their collaboration and of lamenting that the composer had “such a frightful bent towards triviality and kitsch.”
Needless to say, I do not share this disdain for “Ein Alpensinfonie” and apart from thoroughly enjoying the many recordings I own, I also love to hear this grandest of orchestral showpieces live, as I did last year at the Royal Festival Hall with the LPO under Jurowski. I find the sheer impact of this huge piece really thrilling when it is played with this degree of zest and commitment and indeed am hardly acquainted with a poor recording of it; its discography has been very felicitous. We are all the more fortunate to be able – for the time being at least – to count upon the continued funding of the European Union Youth Orchestra, following the intervention, in response to widespread protest at the prospect of its disbandment after forty years of existence, of the EU President, Jean-Claude Juncker.
The sound quality is first-rate although there is some evident deliberate boosting of solo instruments at key points, such as the organ at the conclusion, and this foregrounding is not entirely natural. Special praise is due to the twenty horns who play flawlessly and of which a band is atmospherically positioned for the “offstage” hunting passage. It is fascinating to remember that while Strauss was engaged in writing this gargantuan tone poem, he was simultaneously working on the most intimate and chamber-like of his compositions, “Ariadne auf Naxos”; the orchestration of those two contemporaneous works could hardly be more different. The 130 members of the EU Youth Orchestra play with razor-sharp precision and generate the most extraordinarily rich sonority, with plenty of sheen on the strings and a rich, deep bass line.
There is very little variation in the timings of the various versions with which I am acquainted and everything I look for in a satisfying performance of this work is present here, from the mysterious, brooding B flat minor pedal which opens it, to its resumption at the close. The A major diapason depicting sunrise is magnificent, as is the great, weighty C major climax of “Auf dem Gipfel”. The serene clarinet and bassoon solos before the storm section and the flutes and piccolos imitating eagles’ cries are wonderfully pictorial and there is a really joyous swing to the melodious passage, taken at a suitably brisk pace, conjuring up the flowery meadows where the cows graze. The more discordant and disturbing sections suggestive of dangerous moments on the glacier and the ferocity of the storm are played with remarkable unity and precision. Indeed, the whole piece is played with great verve and momentum such that there is never any danger of it fragmenting into an episodic series of vignettes; Judd presides over a truly cohesive narrative.
As if all this were not enough, the bonus of Mahler’s orphaned Adagio is riveting, beginning first in almost leisurely style but gradually generating a great and inexorable cumulative tension. The strings sing and the nine-note chord makes a chilling impact before the movement subsides into the poised delicacy of the coda, which unfolds beneath the unearthly beauty of the strings keening stratospherically on a high, floated C sharp – magical.
(The recording date is wrongly stated as 1979/80 on the back cover of
my review CD; the booklet insert, which says 1991/2, is presumably correct.)
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