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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op 64 (1911-15)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 22 and 24 February, 2019, Konzerthaus Berlin.  DSD/DDD
Reviewed as downloaded from surround sound press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186802 SACD [48:58]

Vladimir Jurowski made a previous recording of the Alpine Symphony just over three years ago with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on their house label using live concert tapes. That recording was well-received here at MusicWeb (review), although I was less impressed with it myself – but more on that as this review progresses.

Additionally, about a year prior to this release, Jurowski and this same Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin issued a Pentatone recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde which was warmly received by John Quinn, so all the cards are lined up for this new Alpine Symphony to be a much-anticipated release.

The LPO recording was issued on standard CD, where the present release is additionally available in Hi-Res Stereo or Multi-Channel as a download or in SACD format. For this review, I listened to the multi-channel download format.

One potential concern worth noting as soon as we see the contents of this album is that, with Jurowski’s performance of the Alpine Symphony running just over 48 minutes, the SACD, with a capacity of 80 minutes, is only about 60% filled. That’s a lot of unused space where they surely could have found something to make this a more economical choice, perhaps Don Juan or Till Eulenspiegel, for example.

On the positive side, however, Pentatone have proven themselves repeatedly to be dependable for producing state-of-the-art sound quality, and this recording is no exception. No matter how loudly or how quietly the orchestra is playing, the clarity and presence of sound is uniformly top-notch, with the perspective seeming as if I’m somewhere around the middle of the front seating section – close enough to have plenty of clarity for the more densely-scored passages as well as sufficient power for the complete orchestra to make its full impact when needed, but also with enough perspective and bloom in the hall’s ambience for the orchestra’s overall sonority to blend very nicely. Whether or not that excellent sound quality works in the orchestra’s favor is something we’ll find out as we continue through this review.

The booklet notes are well-written and informative, including a note from Jurowski himself explaining his perspective on the Alpine Symphony. The time and thoughtfulness he put into this note will hopefully give the listener a better understanding of his approach to the piece, and the other notes on the piece’s historical background will make a good introduction to the music for first-time listeners as well as possibly giving experienced listeners some new nuggets to consider.

So then, the performance itself. It begins promisingly enough, with Jurowski giving the music a not-too-aggressive forward-moving pace. These mountain climbers are not going to dawdle around, but they are taking a brief moment to glance at the scenery, or at least capture it on their smartphone cameras for the next blog entry. Balances are carefully maintained by Jurowski so that Strauss’ always-present multi-layered textures deftly weave in and out from each other in a manner that keeps the listener’s interest quite effectively.

The Alpine Pasture and Thickets/Undergrowth sections sound particularly well-prepared by Jurowski, with Mahlerian cowbells being prominent enough to easily hear them, yet not overwhelming the rest of the orchestra too much. In the fairly busy Thickets/Undergrowth section, I was pleased to notice a number of orchestral parts that I often do not hear in other Alpine Symphony recordings, coming briefly to the fore long enough to make their presence known, and then retreating back into the mix to make room for the next bit of texture to appear. So far, this sounds like a very well-rehearsed Alpine Symphony indeed.

Then we come to the midpoint and On the Summit. The oboe soloist does an admirable job of trying to give the impression that we are speechless at the full revelation of Alpine scenery before us, but it comes across as trying too hard with some unusual rubato that sounds slightly out of place, even becoming somewhat quirky toward the end of the solo.

As the full orchestra begin making their entry, the trombones are very prominent indeed, perhaps overly so, while the rest of the brass section sounds as if there is still some final balancing needed. Individual notes seem to stick out from the orchestral chords where, instead, we should be hearing a unified wall of sound at this point in order to be most effective.

The following outpouring from the strings with horn counter-melodies is beautifully expressive indeed, but then, sadly, things begin going downhill (pun not intended) for the rest of the piece.

The brass section has several moments in the latter part of On the Summit and continuing on through the Vision section where it sounds as if some of them are getting very tired in their lips, with upper trumpets seeming to just barely maintain control of their notes on more than one occasion, and there is an audible cracked note in the horns at 0:48 in the Vision section. At the end of Vision, where the Night section’s opening chorale now returns at full fortissimo power with the organ thrown in for good measure, the brass section seems to be getting somewhat out-powered by the string section, of all things.

At moments like this, it would almost be to the orchestra’s advantage not to have such high-quality sound from Pentatone, because in this instance, it’s exposing and laying bare every flaw in the performance.

Some people would consider such blemishes to be only a minor concern and wave them off “so long as the conductor has the proper understanding of what the music should do”, but to me, that’s like looking at the Mona Lisa through a glass case with large cracks in it.

The Elegy is very nicely done, but then Jurowski suddenly and inexplicably presses down hard on the accelerator near the end of the Calm Before the Storm section, which pretty much destroys the “calm”. During the thunderstorm, the brass section continues to be a liability, as the whole orchestral palette seems disappointingly under-powered. This is only a mild thunder shower, not even meriting a government weather advisory.

After the storm(?) is over and we reach the Sunset section, Jurowski now remains consistent with his London Philharmonic recording – unfortunately. This is truly one of the fastest and most callous Alpine Symphony Sunsets that I have ever heard. The violins have numerous triple-semi-quaver (“fast”) melodic figures through this section that still need to sound “melodic”, because, well, they are the melody here, for goodness’ sake.

We have just survived a thunderstorm, er um, shower, and now we are witnessing a beautiful Alpine sunset, so we need to have an appropriately rapturous outpouring of emotion from the melody, which is in the violins in this case. But the tempo adopted by Jurowski has this section going so fast that it’s all the violins can do to just play the notes without falling behind, let alone take the time to do any appropriate shaping of the melodic line.

It seems to me that a world-class composer like Richard Strauss can be counted on to know what he is about when writing melodic figures for various sections of the orchestra, so if they sound too rushed, as in this case, then it should be a clue to the conductor that, “Hey, you’re going too fast!” But unfortunately, Jurowski tenaciously keeps his interpretive approach from the LPO concerts and zooms right through it just as before.

In the “Quiet Settles” section (sometimes called “Epilogue” on other recordings), the trumpets still sound as if they are clinging on by their fingernails, with some note changes audibly not being properly controlled, and there are also some tuning problems in the woodwinds that are so obvious and painful that they made me cringe while listening. The second half of the “Quiet Settles” section seems to be going better, but then at 3:35 we have an obvious cracked note in the horn section. The proverbial glass case in front of the Mona Lisa is now becoming shattered to the point of obscuring the painting itself.

Jurowski clearly has some good ideas about how the Alpine Symphony should be played (aside from his tempi in “Calm Before the Storm” and “Sunset”), but in this case, the orchestra’s performance is so substandard for what should be an international-level organization, that this recording is simply not competitive. This is especially disheartening after the excellent Mahler Das Lied von der Erde they released only a year prior. I wanted this recording to be just as much of a triumph as the Mahler was, but sadly, it’s not even close.

As a point of comparison, I also listened to other Alpine Symphony recordings from Frank Shipway with Brazil’s São Paulo Symphony Orchestra on a BIS SACD (BIS-SACD-1950, review), as well as another Pentatone SACD of Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Pentatone PTC 5186628, review).

São Paulo turns in a performance that makes me think they might have been playing the Alpine Symphony for the first time in their lives – and not because there are any problems with it. On the contrary, the unbridled excitement they project throughout every note of the whole piece is very infectious to the listener. It’s rare to hear a performance where the orchestra is so enthusiastic while also being so absolutely and solidly secure in their delivery of an international-level performance. With BIS Records’ always-dependable state-of-the-art sound quality, as well as the addition of the Die Frau Ohne Schatten Symphonic Fantasy, this disk is not only better value for the money, but a significantly better performance as well.

My personal favorite Alpine Symphony of all time, however, out of a library of over fifteen different versions in my collection (including the often-venerated Karajan-Berlin recording) is with Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Frankfurt orchestra has a solid, consistently muscular sound throughout the recording, where the brass and bass instruments are more than up to the task of underpinning this huge piece with the enormous sonic foundation it needs, and the sound quality of the individual players is never anything short of magnificently beautiful. The excitement of the São Paulo recording is here as well, but with a greater degree of tonal refinement and slightly-better-managed balances.

Orozco-Estrada’s recording has considerably more impact than the Jurowski, and some might argue that it has to do with the engineering, but considering the wobbliness of much of the brass playing in the Jurowski, I tend to think the largest share of the difference has to go to Frankfurt simply being a better orchestra, at least in this instance.

Ralph Moore’s review of the Orozco-Estrada recording suggested it was marred by a sense of too much restraint and carefulness, with some of the slower tempi threatening to fall into ponderousness. I find, however, upon close listening on a surround sound system, that Orozco-Estrada is not being “careful” or “ponderous” at all. Rather, he is allowing the Frankfurt orchestra to take the time to shape the melodic lines in ways that bring them to expressive life such as I have never experienced on any other recording of this piece before, and that includes recordings from such luminaries as Haitink, the aforementioned Karajan, Janowski, Previn, Thielemann, Blomstedt, Neeme Järvi, Solti, and Barenboim.

In the more demanding passages such as “On the Summit” or the Thunderstorm, Orozco-Estrada turns the Frankfurt orchestra loose to unleash their full power, and mightily impressive it is, even while remaining perfectly balanced the whole time. All the important parts come to the fore at the proper time, even through the tumult, but it is all maintained within a framework of well-rounded and beautifully refined tone quality that is surely the hallmark of a world-class Richard Strauss orchestra.

So I would personally recommend the Orozco-Estrada Frankfurt recording, although the Shipway-São Paulo is also highly competitive, especially with the additional piece on that disk’s program.

Sadly, however, the Jurowski recording with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is simply not competitive, especially on today’s market with so many clearly better recordings to choose from.

David Phipps

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