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Keith Anderson in the booklet says it is also about Nietzsche's ideas of the freedom of Nature and liberation from the outdated chains of Christianity, plus something about a marital affair and an eventual suicide.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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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