Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (SACD review)

Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra. LSO Live SACD LS00689.

During the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, an era I like to think of as a golden age of hi-fi and music before the advent of computers, home theaters, iPods, iPads, and earbuds, each of the major record labels had its own stars: DG had Herbert von Karajan, Decca had Sir Georg Solti, EMI had Otto Klemperer and later Andre Previn, and Philips had Bernard Haitink. Haitink's Philips recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra remain among my favorites, not only because of the wonderful sound Philips provided but because Haitink's interpretations wear so well. He has always let the music speak for itself, without, for instance, the Karajan glamor or the Solti theatrics. It was a pleasure to listen to his Philips Concertgebouw recording of An Alpine Symphony a while back, re-released by Newton Classics. Now comes this newer recording of the Alpine with the London Symphony Orchestra on the orchestra's own "LSO Live" label.

It wasn't long after German conductor and composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) premiered his Alpine Symphony in 1915 that critics began reproaching it as frivolous cotton-candy: picture-postcard music unworthy of the great man's talents. That always seemed an unfair assessment. It seemed that people couldn't help comparing the newer work to Strauss's previous tone poems like Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), which combined a degree of philosophical insight with their purely pictorial portraits. These critics felt the Alpine Symphony didn't live up to the other works because it merely told a story. I wonder if they thought of lodging the same complaint against Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

Interestingly, An Alpine Symphony started out as something else entirely and sort of evolved into what it finally became. Early on, Strauss wrote "I will call my Alpine Symphony the Antichrist, because in it there is moral purification by means of one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of glorious, eternal nature." Later, he said it was simply the musical reflection of a childhood mountain-climbing expedition. Whatever, whether you consider the Alpine Symphony in a literal or metaphorical sense is beside the point; just enjoying it is the goal. It wasn't until the latter part of the twentieth century that the Alpine Symphony got its proper due as more conductors took up the baton in its defense, and today we take the work for granted a basic-repertoire item.

Of course, the Alpine Symphony is not really a symphony at all, at least not a symphony in the conventional sense. It's a series of twenty-two interconnected passages, or movements, that tell the story of an alpine climb, with chapter titles conveying the composer's intentions, 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 be a few too many climaxes along the way, it is all quite graphic and imposing. Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, over 120 players, and the piece is vast in scope, elaborate, often majestic, and not a little bombastic.

Haitink's interpretation has not changed all that much since his 1985 recording. It still has weight, authority, and grandeur, yet this time, if anything, he adds more contemplation and continuity. He makes it more than just pictorial, never glamorizing the work or sentimentalizing it. Haitink again plays the score straightforwardly and lets the music take care of itself. Moreover, the conductor never approaches the work as a series of disconnected scenes but as a unified, structural whole. As a result, he brings each scene vividly to life and allows the music to shine majestically. This is another excellent performance of a sometimes underestimated work.

More specifically, Haitink starts with a very atmospheric opening and builds it to a resplendent "Sunrise." As usual with Haitink, there is no sensationalizing of the music, the conductor presenting it in a thoughtful, yet dramatic, fashion. Nevertheless, as the program unfolded, I found myself beginning to wish Haitink was emphasizing the contrasts a bit more because after about ten or fifteen minutes I thought it was beginning to sound a little static. I was wrong. As the work progresses, the performance rather grows on you in its unpretentious, unassuming, contemplative way. By the time it's finished, you realize this has been a more cerebral interpretation than most, and one that, like most of Haitink's work, should wear well over time.

Would I prefer listening to this new Haitink recording over any of my other favorites? No, I'd not prefer it, but I'd set it alongside the likes of Kempe (EMI), Previn (Telarc), Blomstedt (Decca), Thielemann (DG), or Haitink (Philips or Newton Classics) himself.

Recorded live in concert at the Barbican, London, in June of 2008, the SACD includes a two-channel stereo track and a 5.1 multichannel mix. In the stereo mode that I played back on a Sony SACD machine, the sound was quite pleasing, big and full, if slightly one-dimensional. I'm sure the surround version, had I been able to hear it, would have improved this condition, but my main listening system is two-channel only. In any case, a wide left-to-right stereo spread, good dynamics, and a strong impact help to make up for any minor lack of depth. The overall sonic impression is one of extreme smoothness, sometimes a little soft perhaps but very easy on the ear, a big sound picture to match the big musical picture Strauss paints.

Even though the miking doesn't appear to be excessively close, there is practically no noise from the audience, no coughing, wheezing, or shuffling of feet. Just as important, the recording engineers wisely chose to forgo any final applause, which would have marred the orchestra's final quiet notes fading into nightfall.



  1. Some idiot, reviewing Janowski's SACD account, referred to this work as being 'banal'! Surely not. I was listening to Symon Bychkov's pre-prom interview, where he said 'one' could also interpret the work, as a life's journey, from birth (Sunrise) to death (Sunset).

  2. Of course, one can interpret almost any music in any fashion one desires and probably justify the interpretation. Certainly, Strauss's music lends itself easily to various interpretations since he meant so much of it to be programmatic, anyway. For me, the only question is whether I like it, whether it moves me in some way. The "Alpine" banal? A little over-the-top, maybe; bombastic, possibly. But "Banal"? Hardly.

    Thanks for the comment.


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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa