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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

Vladimir Jurowski is a seasoned Straussian, with experience of conducting his music both in the theatre and the concert hall. His excellent (and freely available on Youtube) Frau ohne Schatten from Amsterdam is proof enough of that. However, he hasn’t recorded much, so this disc with his (former) London band is very welcome, all the more so because it’s very strong musically.

For one thing, the recorded sound is excellent, and that really helps this Alpensinfonie to take flight. The opening cluster of notes that depict the darkness is unusually clear, as is the theme of the mountain deep in the brass. The ensuing sunrise really sparkles after the fog has cleared, and the whole of the rest of the tone poem is full of colour and life thanks to the engineers. The only (very slight) disappointment comes in the offstage hunting horns, which are not only too recessed but also ever-so-slightly out of sync with what’s going on in the hall.

No matter: what’s going on in the hall is very good. There is vigour and power to the string sound that lets the Ascent get underway with a real sense of upward heave, and throughout the work’s first half Jurowski and his orchestra balance the sense of drama with a sense of excited discovery. This walker seems to stumble upon the Alpine meadow almost by surprise, and the excursion past the waterfall is so energised that it feels wide-eyed. The pizzicati and stabbing winds of the thicket effectively represent the darned annoyance of losing the path, and then a wonderful sense of open space greets the arrival on the summit, the brass fanfares yielding to a superb string shimmer that has a gorgeous feeling of air around it. After this the oboe solo seems slightly tentative - why wouldn’t it be? - but the brass climaxes and string glissandi are to die for, as is the power of the thunderstorm.

The organ sounds a little indisinct, almost as though it was dubbed in later (even though it clearly hasn’t been), but otherwise the descent and storm sound thrilling. There’s also a strangely powerful sense of wonder to the _____ (Ausklang?) section, as though Jurowski is trying to give the work’s philosophical pretensions their due place, before the wandering strings of the coda put the work to a slightly unsettled ending.

This is, in short, a very fine modern Alpensinfonie. I doubt it will make any collectors put aside their previous versions by older masters, such as Karajan or Haitink; nor does this quite take the palm from great recent recordings, most notably that of Andris Nelsons in Birmingham. Jurowski’s admirers need not hesitate, though.

They can be just as happy with the other things on the disc. The Dance of the Seven Veils is brilliantly driven, particularly in the final section (the seventh veil, if you like) where Jurowski’s dramatic power really pushes forwards. Before that, however, the LPO strings take on a whole layer of fin-de-siecle decadence that you never knew that had in them, caressing the violin line in a way that is entirely in keeping with the music’s purpose.

The Frau Ohne Schatten sequence is the set’s curiosity, partly because it’s Jurowski’s own suite put together from the opera. I thought it worked very well. It effectively gathers together the orchestral highlights - such as the beginnings and endings of acts, or the interludes like the Falcon scene in Act 2, together with set pieces like the flight down to earth - and pulls them together into something that isn’t exactly coherent, but nor does it jar, and some things are really lovely to hear such as the end of Act 1, which has the ability to reduce me to a weeping wreck at any time. It is expertly played and, unsurprisingly, conducted with the greatest conviction by the man who arranged it and, therefore, is utterly convinced by it.

Anyone who loves the opera will want to hear it (particularly in this, its centenary year as I write, but the set has a wider appeal to Straussians as a group. Very fine playing and convinced conducting makes this whole set a winner.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ John Quinn

Very fine playing and convinced conducting makes this whole set a winner.

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