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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
“Eine Alpensinfonie”, Op. 64, TrV 233 [48:58]
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live Berlin, Konzerthaus, 22 & 24 February 2019
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview in 24/96 stereo.
PENTATONE PTC5186802 SACD [48:58]

The popularity of Strauss’s tone poems in concert and on disc can belie the challenges they pose for both conductor and orchestra. These masterpieces of high Romantic, programmatic music are not short of technical difficulty, but rather require a great deal of interpretive skill to bring out structure and sense in what is essentially an uninterrupted 48 minutes of music. The Alpine Symphony writes into sound a celebration of nature’s glories and man’s ability to touch such heights. Jurowski’s latest recording, though well played technically and spectacular tonally, struggles to convey both moments of magic within the music and the overall build-up of the ascent.

Addressing the former point, the performance is on the quick side, though by no means rushed, but more importantly it scarcely lingers for contemplation. At the best of times, the listener might get the idea of a dignified appreciation of nature’s wonders; the Entry into the Woods is well balanced and the orchestral playing quite beautiful. However, more often than not, rather than bringing clarity, Jurowski’s refusal to allow the music to breathe at transitions and moments of beauty has the tendency to obfuscate, robbing the music of such moments of magic as are of even more heightened importance in Strauss’s lush scores; compare the opening Night and crescendo to Sunrise to Karajan’s famous recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, where the music is taken just a touch slower and achieves a far greater grandeur and majesty (DG4390172 or 2-CD budget-price set 4742812 or 5-CD set 4779814). This only goes to show that an approach slightly more sympathetic to the ebb and flow of the phrasing could pay dividends.

This brings us onto the second point, the shaping of the music into a true representation of a mountain ascent. In the best performances of the Alpine Symphony, the listener can attain the same inexplicable feeling of ever-climbing as a hiker might, even through sections of respite. Jurowski seemingly leads us up a peak without a map, for it can feel as though we stumble upon scenes of beauty with only periodic ideas of direction. What is, however, masterfully done is the Summit and Vision; there is no doubt that we have reached the top in first the introspective oboe solo, then the soaring ‘sun’ and ‘mountain’ motifs with the full orchestra playing their hearts out in dignity and ecstasy. It is just a shame that, as beautifully played it is, it falls short of the heights it deserves without the build-up from the beginning such as in the Karajan recording, or that with Rudolf Kempe and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Testament SBT1428, with Horn Concerto).

The descent is, once again, taken rather quickly, but I found this approach to rather suit the shrieking instrumentation and textural calamity of the storm. More ebb and flow in the re-emergence of the motifs to represent the passing of the rain would perhaps add a welcome extra dimension to this section. What I found more disappointing were the final moments of the piece, where I thought Jurowski’s dignity might have excelled if not for the rather swift tempo, stopping us from appreciating the calm after the stormy descent. On top of audible tiring in the wind and brass sections, the final moments were, sadly, more like an over-exerted mountaineer collapsing from exhaustion than a return in triumph.

In conclusion, a performance not without good ideas and playing, but an interpretation which struggles to bring out the best in a score capable of so much more.

Colin C.F. Chow

Previous review: David Phipps

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