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