Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (CD review)

Also, Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo. Franz Welser-Most, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. BR Klassik 900124.

Oh, my. Financial constraints weigh so heavy on most big European and American orchestras these days that they often depend upon live recordings if they are to record at all. At the time of this writing I had received two such live recordings for review on the same day, this one from Franz Welser-Most and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on BR Klassik and another from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Reference Recordings Fresh! Not that there is anything particularly wrong with the sound of these recordings; it's just that I can't help thinking how much better they would have been without the presence of a breathing, wheezing, shuffling audience. Nevertheless, such are the economics of today's recordings, where it's simply too expensive to pay large groups of musicians for studio time when the ticket-buying public can essentially underwrite the productions themselves. But enough grousing; let's look at the music.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) began writing An Alpine Symphony in 1911 and completed it several years later. It would be the last of his big-scale, symphonic tone poems. He went on to spend the final thirty-odd years of his life composing other kinds of music, songs, and, of course, opera. Supposedly, the composer came to write his Alpine Symphony after viewing the Bavarian mountains behind his home, the mountains he used to climb and enjoy in his youth.

An Alpine Symphony is among the composer's most controversial works; you either love it or you hate it. Critics for years have written it off as nothing more than picture-postcard music, lightweight fluff, hammy and melodramatic and unworthy to set alongside the master's greater work. However, I wonder if these critics aren't letting their estimate of the subject matter cloud their judgment. I mean, for some people the mere description of mountains, peaks, and pastures can't seem to measure up against things with such imposing titles as Death and Transfiguration and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Be that as it may, I find An Alpine Symphony immensely entertaining, and I believe the glories of Nature are every bit as sublime and profound as anything written by Nietzsche.

Still, that's neither here nor there. If you like the music, the question is which recording you want to hear in your living room, and there's a surplus of great ones already out there with which this new one from Welser-Most must contend. For example, there are excellent accounts from Rudolf Kempe and Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Andre Previn and Vienna Philharmonic (Telarc), Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips and Newton Classics), Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), and even Georg Solti conducting the same orchestra represented here, the Bavarian Radio Symphony (Decca), among many other fine renditions. Indeed, Welser-Most himself recorded this work only several years earlier with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. So, yes, he's up against heady competition, including himself.

Anyway, An Alpine Symphony is actually not a symphony at all in the strictest sense but a long symphonic poem, describing in almost photographic detail the climb up and back down an Alpine mountain, with the titles of the movements telling the story. To give you the idea, here are a few movements: "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 all of these events, and while there may be one climax too many along the way, it is all vivid enough to give one the sense of being on the mountain with the climbers and experiencing the grandeur and mysticism of the moment.

Welser-Most's way with the music is to take it rather briskly, quicker even than I remember Solti doing it. Not that this is a bad thing; Welser-Most is shaping the music to conform to his own vision of the ascent and descent and clearly sees it as a faster journey than many other conductors do. The problem is that for me this tends to rob the score of some of its grandeur and beauty.

That said, Welser-Most points up the contrasts quite well and emphasizes the work's drama nicely, so there is no end of outright thrills in the piece. "On the Summit," "Vision," and "A Thunderstorm" work out pretty well. Yet thrills can't always make up for the sheer pleasure of seeing in the mind's eye the forest, the stream, the waterfall, and the flowery meadows; and for me Welser-Most's haste in the journey took a little something away from the imagery.

One cannot say that anything is missing from the playing of the Bavarian RSO, however. They play this music as lushly, as lavishly, as richly as any orchestra around. To hear them is to get one's money's worth from the disc all by itself.

In addition to the symphonic poem, the disc offers the coupling of Strauss's Four Symphonic Interludes from the two-act opera Intermezzo, which premiered in 1924. Because Welser-Most gets through the Alpine symphonic poem a good five or six minutes quicker than most other conductors, he has plenty of room for another longer piece, the four interludes accounting for over twenty more minutes of music. Whatever, I enjoyed the conductor's approach here more than I did in the main selection, with good thrust and parry in his delivery. The sightly lighter orchestration also allows for a greater transparency, always welcome.

As I said earlier, BR Klassik recorded the music live, both selections at the Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich in 2010 (Alpine Symphony) and 2013 (Interludes). Despite the live audience, the engineers have obtained a decent sound, miking the orchestra at a moderate distance so it's not quite as in-your-face as some live recordings. What this means, though, is that you'll notice more audience noise than usual; nothing really distracting but you'll feel their presence whenever the music turns soft, which in these pieces is actually quite often. Otherwise, the sound is fairly warm and smooth, with a reasonable degree of realism in the room ambience, bloom, air, clarity, depth, and dynamics. Although in the symphony I would have liked a little more bass response, especially from the organ, and a little less room resonance, at least the engineers have edited out any final applause.

To wrap up the package, the folks at BR Klassik provide a glossy, light-cardboard slipcover for the CD jewel case. I'm not sure why they do, but it's a nice touch.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

1 comment:

  1. I seem to recall that there were two recordings - one live, and the better of the two - under a rather good conductor called Richard Strauss. A bit old, of course, and like his other recordings of this repertoire, ignored in general and in detail by his contemporaries and later performers on the usual grounds that they knew better. Once you start checking, they quite often don't. Welser-Most is innocent until proved guilty, at present. Floreat Domus


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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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