Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (SACD review)

Also, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks.  Semyon Bychkov, WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne.  Profil PH09065.

Over the years, critics have generally frowned upon Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony from 1915, calling it a monumental picture postcard, lightweight fluff, hammy, and melodramatic. But what they cannot deny is that it is immensely entertaining. Strauss worked on it off and on for several decades, originally intending to compose a traditional four-movement symphony whose theme would encompass the moral purging of one's soul through work and the adoration of Nature. What he finally came up with was an attractive tone poem, the musical depiction of a day's ascent of an alpine mountain, a storm at the top, the climber's contemplation of Nature, and the descent.

The work includes twenty-two movements, with titles telling the tale. Here are a few of them to give you the idea:  "Night," "Sunrise," "The Ascent," "Entry into the Forest," "Wandering by the Brook," "By the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "An Alpine Pasture," "On the Glacier," "Dangerous Moments," "On the Summit," "Calm Before the Storm," "Thunderstorm," "Sunset," and a return to "Night." Strauss graphically represents each of these events, and while there may be one climax too many, it is all vivid enough to give the listener the sense of being on the mountain with the climber and experiencing the grandeur and mysticism of the moment.

Semyon Bychkov and his WDR Symphony play up the work's most thrilling points, but the conductor tends to rush somewhat the calmer interludes, at least in the beginning, and then slow things down a bit toward the end to conclude the piece on an appropriately lyrical, reflective note. Since the early Seventies, my own favorite recording of the Alpine Symphony has been that of Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), to which I must compare all others. By comparison, Bychkov doesn't quite capture all of the splendor and majesty of the mountain's summit, yet he does a splendid job with the still before the storm and then unleashes a fearsome storm itself with suitable fury.

I can't say I disliked Bychkov's approach to the Alpine Symphony, but I can't say it inspired me quite the way Kempe's interpretation does, either, the latter transporting this listener to a higher, more exalted plane altogether. Let's just say Maestro Bychkov does Strauss proud in a slightly more straightforward manner than Kempe.

Accompanying the Symphony, Bychkov gives us Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, which comes off a little better, a little more involving--colorful, adventurous, and mischievous, right up until Till's unceremonious demise. Bychkov makes it as humorously impish as it should be.

As far as Profil's sound goes, it's quite good, transparent and powerful, with only some small loss of deepest bass a minor concern. The Profil engineers recorded it in 2009, reproducing the audio in multichannel on this SACD, as well as in a two-channel stereo layer to which I listened. Yet even in two channels, one can hear the music's ambient bloom without it drowning out the recording's inherent clarity. We also find a wide stereo spread; a strong dynamic impact, especially during the storm sequence; and more than acceptable orchestral depth.

One final note: Although Profil provide all twenty-two of Strauss's movement titles for the Alpine Symphony, they are in German only. Curiously, the folks at Profil include the program titles for Till in English, but not for the Symphony. It seems an odd omission for the English-speaking market.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa