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Richard STRAUSS (1864 -1949) Eine Alpensinfonie Op. 64 (1911 – 1915)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live 22 & 24 February 2019, Konzerthaus Berlin PENTATONE PTC5186802SACD [48:58]
Having heard him conduct in live performance many times, I am a great admirer of Vladimir Jurowski, but the raison d’être of this new recording is questionable. While it is perfectly understandable that an eminent conductor would wish to consign his interpretations of key works to posterity, it is also surely legitimate to wonder how many more new recordings of core repertoire we need, especially when the CD is little more than half-filled with music, leaving ample room for another major work. Furthermore, only five years ago Jurowski made a superb recording of the same work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on their live label which was very positively reviewed by no fewer than three colleagues (review ~ review ~ review) and that issue included “bonus items” of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome and excerpts from Die Frau ohne Schatten, filling that CD. Of course, one advantage for some prospective purchasers is the fact that the LPO Live recording was standard CD digital whereas this is an SACD - but there are already half a dozen such issues from which the audiophile may choose.
Nonetheless, if this among the finest versions ever committed to disc, my griping loses some of its validity – and this is still very good; Jurowski maintains tension and momentum throughout and the sound is beautifully deep and well-balanced – as we may hear from the perfect placement against the orchestra of the distant hunting horns in The Ascent – and no matter how loud and fast the playing is, everything is transparent and multi-layered, with no hint of overload. The “Alpine Pasture” section is especially is especially atmospheric with some lovely cowbells and bleating sheep, with some good flutter-tonguing from the oboe and E♭ clarinet.
I am less happy, however, with the oboe soloist’s quirky, jerky playing in “On the Summit”; fortunately the ensuing climactic C major apotheosis is suitably ecstatic, although the tuning in the upper brass is not quite as secure as the very finest versions and previous interpreters such as Shipway are much more imposing still. The Elegy is serene and spacious and the “Calm before the Storm” is suitably tense and baleful; Jurowski judges the sudden change of pace nicely, accelerating into the storm neatly – but I have heard more menacing tempests than the RSB give us here, as the overall impact is somewhat too restrained until the timpani kick in at 2:42 for the last minute and raise the level of excitement. “Sunset” is taken quite swiftly, as Jurowski did with the LPO, but I do not find that it drags or lacks gravitas. “The Quiet Settles” section is serenely played, some minor imperfections from the trumpets and horns notwithstanding, and the descent back into “Night” is smoothly managed.
A brief essay by Jurowski and another by Jörg Peter Urbach helpfully explore how Strauss’ philosophy and relationship with nature inform the “meta-level” of his music and the light, compact, cardboard digipack is attractive.
Good as this is, it does not displace my favourite versions such as the classic Karajan and those by Jansons and Shipway – all three are technically superior in terms of playing - in particular, they are devoid of any blips in note attack in the brass - and the latter two have excellent fillers, offering complete, generous programmes instead of the single work.