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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1915) [44:48]
Salome, Op. 54, ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ (1903-1905) [9:34]
Die Frau ohne Schatten, Op. 65 – orchestral excerpts (1914-1918) [47:11]
Kristina Blaumane (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 2012 (Frau ohne Schatten), 2013 (Salome) & 2016 (Alpensinfonie), Royal Festival Hall, London

Though Vladimir Jurowski has been Principal Conductor of the LPO since the start of the 2007/08 season I have not so far managed to see him conduct live, which is something I regret very much. I’ve heard a number of his recordings, mainly with the LPO on the orchestra’s own label, and though I’ve had reservations about one or two I’ve generally admired what I’ve heard. The other thing that has impressed me about Jurowski’s tenure at the LPO, chiefly through reading the reviews of my Seen and Heard colleagues, is the intelligence and imagination of his programme planning. By sheer coincidence, just as I was putting the finishing touches to this review I saw one such review by Alan Sanders of a typically adventurous pairing of works by Beethoven and Stravinsky. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of their relationship with Jurowski the orchestra released a seven-disc set of his live recordings with them (LPO-1010). Far from being a simple repackaging of previous releases, these were all new issues. The range and adventure of Jurowski’s programming was plain to see. The selection includes major works by Denisov, Enescu, Kancheli and Silvestrov. I bought a copy of the set but haven’t yet had the time to listen to it in full. What I have heard so far suggests this is a set of uncommon interest. The LPO will miss him when he steps down at the end of the 2020/21 season.

This present Strauss set, too, evidences Jurowski’s enterprise. Quite a number of conductors have performed and recorded Strauss’s own ‘Symphonic fantasy’ (1946) on Die Frau ohne Schatten but here Jurowski offers something more substantial. The ‘Symphonic fantasy’ plays for some 24 minutes but here we get virtually twice as much music. I don’t know whether the extracts that are here performed were drawn together by Jurowski; it would have been nice to know but the documentation is silent on that point.

The orchestration of Die Frau ohne Schatten is both opulent and fantastically inventive. Indeed, I think there’s an argument to be made that the opera represents at the very peak of Strauss’s powers as an orchestrator. All the colour and fantasy come out in this terrific LPO performance. In the opening section, ‘Introduction, Earth Flight’, the percussion and heavy brass make a powerful impression. In the Act 1 Finale, the most extensive of the extracts, the most ear-catching passage of all is the gorgeous lullaby-like music (from 8:23), tranquil and richly scored. The ‘Falcon Scene’ is dominated by the cello solo which depicts the distrait Emperor. Here, it’s superbly played by the LPO’s principal cellist, Kristina Blaumane. Her lustrous tone ravishes the ear and both her tone and her characterful playing would sit well in a performance of Don Quixote. Not to be outdone, in the ‘Scene in Front of the Temple’ the LPO’s leader. Pieter Schoeman plays with marvellous expressiveness the sad and yearning violin solo that represents the Empress.

There’s some amazing scoring to be heard in ‘Scene in Front of the Emperor’s Statue’. Here, the LPO’s percussionists have a field day, making the most of Strauss’s use of Chinese gongs and a tam-tam. The performance of this extract is hugely powerful. I revelled in the opulent writing in ‘The Couples Rejoice’, here superbly delivered by the LPO, and there’s even more opulence to savour in the Act 3 Finale before the gentle radiance of Strauss’s ‘happy ending’ draws the tale to a warmly satisfying close. This is a richly enjoyable performance of the orchestral tour d’horizon of Strauss’s opera

As Stephen Johnson observes in his notes about Eine Alpensinfonie, some observers have decried the work as little more than “a sumptuous musical travelogue”. When I was first drawn to the Strauss orchestral music – more decades ago than I’m prepared to admit in public – I read some comments in a similar vein. What persuaded me that there must be more to the work than that was the fact that such eminent Strauss conductors as Karajan, Kempe and Bernard Haitink played the work and, indeed, had recorded it at least once. In fact, after coming to the work through Kempe’s marvellous series of Dresden recordings (EMI) on LP the very first recording of Alpensinfonie that I owned on CD was Haitink’s excellent 1985 Concertgebouw recording for Philips (review). I have it still, though I believe that he surpassed that recording with his more recent magisterial LSO Live account (review).

Jurowski’s LPO performance is fit to stand beside Haitink’s LSO traversal, I think. Not only does the LPO play magnificently for him but in addition Jurowski controls the whole vast edifice very well indeed, maintaining focus and never stopping to admire the view. The hushed dark sonorities of the opening ‘Night’ lead to a sumptuous ‘Sunrise’. Then, in ‘The Ascent’, Jurowski and his LPO travelling companions stride forth purposefully. As we observed when we auditioned this disc in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio, the off-stage hunting horns are effectively balanced. On my own equipment I found the sound of the distant hunters registered in a very credible fashion.

‘The Apparition’ is presented in glistening, sparkling hues and when the ‘Summit’ is reached Jurowski manages the not-inconsiderable feat of making the music sound imposing but not over-blown. In the ‘Calm before the Storm’ section he generates genuine suspense before unleashing a potent storm. This storm is very dramatic; as I listened, I reflected that I wouldn’t want to be caught outside in such a tempest. The ‘Sunset’ and ‘Ausklang’ sections are beautifully judged here – and gorgeously played. It seems to me that Jurowski gets the degree of expansiveness just right: the music blooms but he never overplays his hand. Finally, the work sinks back into the darkness of night from which it emerged when our journey began.

This is a very fine account indeed of Eine Alpensinfonie. The LPO is on magnificent form and Jurowski’s direction is inspired. We thought highly of the recorded sound when we played an extract in the Listening Studio; now that I’ve had the chance to listen to the whole piece on my own equipment I can endorse that initial judgement.

The set is completed with a performance of the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. To be honest, this isn’t my favourite piece of Strauss, especially when wrenched from its operatic context. However, Jurowski makes a vibrant and dramatic case for it.

There are good booklet noted by Stephen Johnson on Eine Alpensinfonie and by Gavin Plumley on the other pieces. The documentation sets the seal on an extremely attractive and interesting Strauss anthology.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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