Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (CD review)

Philippe Jordan, Paris National Opera Orchestra. Naive V5233.

It continues to bemuse and annoy me that critics over the years have disparaged Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony as lightweight, picture-postcard music. Yet this is the second recording of the work I've reviewed in the past few months, indicating that at least the public still enjoys the music. And why not: No matter what the critics say about it, it's still immensely entertaining. Strauss worked on it off and on for several decades until premiering it in 1915. Originally, he had intended to compose a traditional four-movement symphony whose theme as he put it, "...represents moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature." Whatever, he came up with an attractive tone poem, the musical depiction of a day's ascent up an alpine mountain, a storm at the top, the climber's contemplation of Nature, and the descent. Philosophy aside, that's more than enough.

The work comprises twenty-two movements, with titles telling the tale, things like "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 describes each of these events in music, and although there may a few too many climaxes along the way, it is all quite vivid and imposing. After all, Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, some 120 players, and the piece is vast in scope, grandiose, often majestic, and not a little, in part, bombastic.

That's pretty much how maestro Philippe Jordan presents it, with lots of pomp and ceremony. Yet he manages the hushed, quieter junctures well, too, like the night giving way to sunrise, and the entry into the forest.

It seems to me that Jordan rushes some sections just a little, but then in the big moments he slows down and lingers long enough to create a grandly eloquent statement. The time on the glacier, for instance, is indeed perilous, and by the time we reach the summit and the "Vision," circumstances have become most inspiring and uplifting, awesome, in fact.

While Jordan still doesn't quite set the blood to racing the way my favorite conductor and ensemble in this work do, Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Jordan does come close enough to call it almost even. And Jordan draws some exquisitely beautiful playing from his Paris National Opera Orchestra in a performance both sensitive and heroic. Highly enjoyable.

The sound, recorded by Naive in November, 2009, appears fairly closely recorded, yet with some instruments displaying a deep stage depth, the overall result is reasonably natural. The sonics provide a wide frequency range and dynamic response, a sweetly extended high end, an effectively deep bass, and a midrange well balanced with the top and bottom. Clarity emerges above average without being overly bright, forward, or edgy, although there are minor instances of all three conditions present. What's more, the sound is well spread out between and beyond the speakers, a nice expansive quality that adds to the majesty of the music.

With the aforementioned Kempe recording to consider (although in America it's only available at this time in an EMI box set, and as a single disc an EMI-Toshiba remastering from Japan), along with Previn/VPO (Telarc), Haitink/Concertgebouw (Philips), Blomstedt/SFSO (Decca), Thielemann/VPO (DG), and others, there is a wide field of competitors for one's money. Jordan makes another. His is a skillful production all the way around.


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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