Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (CD review)

Antoni Wit, Staatskapelle Weimar. Naxos 8.557811.

Following his writing a succession of popular, big-scale tone poems like Don Juan, Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration), Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), and Also sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss ended his love affair with the genre in 1915 with An Alpine Symphony. For some critics, it has always been a low spot in the composer's tone-poem output, no more than a glorified postcard from the Alps. But I have always found it a fascinating journey, and, besides, the writer of the CD booklet notes says it has a lot more intellectual and philosophical substance than most of us were led to believe. Yeah, well, believe what you like, the music still sounds grand.

Strauss began writing the work in 1911 and completed it several years later, devoting his final thirty-plus years mainly to smaller works, songs, and, of course, opera. Supposedly, the composer got his inspiration to write the Alpine Symphony while viewing the Bavarian mountains behind his house, mountains he used to climb and enjoy in his youth. But Keith Anderson in the booklet says it is also about Nietzsche's ideas of the freedom of Nature and liberation from the outdated chains of Christianity, plus something about a marital affair and an eventual suicide. Whatever. I just like the music.

As you know, the piece is the musical account of a mountain climb, starting in the morning with sunrise, ascending through the woods, by a waterfall, across a meadow, onto a glacier, further on to the summit, weathering a storm, and descending by sunset and ending at nightfall. On Antoni Wit's recording, the trip takes about fifty-four minutes, neither too hurried nor too slow.

Certainly, the bargain price of the disc does nothing to diminish one's rewards. Indeed, it may only increase them, knowing the cost is so modest. The orchestra is one of the oldest ensembles, if not the oldest, in the world, founded in 1491. Dang. That was before Columbus bumped into the New World. This is the orchestra Bach played in and that Liszt and Richard Strauss himself once lead. In various guises, the orchestra has been going strong ever since. So, you get a lot for your money. The Alpine Symphony needs a big, strong orchestra like this to do it justice, the work scored for an enormously large group of instruments, including quite a few percussion, an organ, and a wind machine.

Wit makes the most of what he's handed, and if his success in the piece doesn't quite match my own favorite, Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden, another fine old European orchestra, on EMI from 1971, it surely isn't for lack of trying. The EMI recording is just that much more revealing (especially in its EMI Japan release), and Kempe's hand is just that much more sure in guiding the listener up the slopes. The Naxos recording seems a touch heavier and more beclouded than the EMI, and Wit seems a tad less inclined to open up the music emotionally.

Nevertheless, Wit produces a fine reading, as spacious and panoramic as the mountains themselves. Besides, as I say, for the price it's something of a steal.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa