Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (CD review)

Zubin Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic. HDTT.

While there is an abundance of good recordings available of Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony (my own favorites remaining the ones with Kempe on EMI and Previn on Telarc), there is no question this 1975 version from Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic is at least among the elite, interpretatively and sonically. More important, now that the good folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered it, it sounds as good as ever.

German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) started writing An Alpine Symphony in 1911 and finished it several years later in 1915. It was the last of his big-scale, symphonic tone poems, and he spent the next thirty-odd years of his life composing other kinds of music: songs, mainly, 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 as a boy.

However, An Alpine Symphony is among the composer's more-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 Strauss's greater work. Still, 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 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 Nietzsche wrote (although one should not entirely overlook the role the German philosopher played in the development of Strauss's symphony).

Here's the thing: If you like the music, the question is which recording you want to hear in your living room, and, as I said above, there's a surplus of great ones already out there. With Mehta, we get a majestic view of the mountaintops from the very beginning of the work. The sun rises rather abruptly from the night, and the ascent, forest, stroll, waterfall, meadows, and pastures all tend to get a more-or-less straightforward, though fairly opulent treatment. In fact, Mehta seems as impetuous as a youth on the mountainside, impatient to get to the top. Which is as valid a reading of the music as any.

Zubin Mehta
When Part II arrives and the climber has reached the summit, Mehta lets out all the stops, offering up as grand a vision of Nature in all her glory as any on record. It's every bit the mystical experience I'm sure Strauss intended. He whips up a good frenzy in the storm, too, and delivers a sweet respite in the sunset and return to night. It's both a thoughtful and exciting interpretation.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has never been one of my favorite orchestras, appears as they often do on record: a little thin. Maybe it's just the way Decca recorded them; I don't know. Whatever, they still sound splendid, so it's little to worry about.

Two minor quibbles: The symphony isn't really very long, and since it is generally HDTT's practice to remaster just what was on a tape or LP, it is only the symphony we get. Moreover, they provide only two tracks on the disc, corresponding to Parts I and II of the work. Personally, I enjoy reading along with the script, the twenty-odd descriptive passages, while listening to the musical representation of them. But that's just me, and, again, having only two tracks was probably a result of the tape. Oh, well, not important.

Producer Ray Minshull and engineer James Lock recorded the symphony in 1975 at Royce Hall, Los Angeles, and HDTT remastered it from a London 4-track Dolby-encoded tape. The sound displays excellent clarity, something for which listeners have long noted Decca recordings. Accompanying the clarity, however, is a very slight edge, also a quality of most Decca recordings of the era. In any case, a small amount of warmth in the lower midrange and upper bass help mitigate this condition. Dynamics, frequency range, especially mid treble and mid bass, sound particularly good, if just a tad fuzzy in the extreme highs. And some moderate degree of hall bloom and ambience give the listener the impression of live, natural music.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

No comments:

Post a Comment

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa