Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (CD review)

Also, Horn Concerto No. 1. Alan Civil, horn; Rudolf Kempe, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Testament SBT 1428 (remastered).

For the past forty-five years or so I have been living happily with Rudolf Kempe's 1971 EMI recording of An Alpine Symphony with the Dresden Staatskapelle, even though I knew that Kempe had also recorded it just a few years earlier with the Royal Philharmonic on a disc that RCA made for Reader's Digest. I also knew that the earlier performance was just as good as the later one but that RCA had done it no favors with the sound. Frankly, the LP sounded pretty bad to me, and I never bothered with the recording again, until recently. That's when I got hold of Testament's CD remaster. Now, I think I have two favorites.

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) began writing An Alpine Symphony in 1911 and completed it several years later. It was the last of his big-scale symphonic tone poems, the composer spending his final thirty-odd years writing other kinds of music, songs, and, of course, opera. I have read that Strauss 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.

Whatever, An Alpine Symphony proved one of the composer's most controversial works, with critics and general listeners either loving it or hating it. Commentators 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 works. 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 personally 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.

Originally, Strauss intended to compose a traditional four-movement symphony whose theme as he put it, "...represents moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature." What he came up with was an attractive tone poem, the musical depiction of a day's ascent of an alpine mountain, a storm at the top, the climber's contemplation of Nature, and the descent. Philosophy aside, that's more than enough.

The work comprises twenty-two movements, with titles telling the tale, 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 vivid and imposing. After all, Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, over 120 players, and the piece is vast in scope, grandiose, often majestic, and not a little, in part, bombastic.

Rudolf Kempe
So, what does Kempe bring to the table that surpasses such notable conductors of the work as Karajan, Solti, Haitink, Mehta, Previn, Blomstedt, and others who have scaled these peaks? Kempe's performance is just as nuanced, just as refined, just as atmospheric, and just as glorious with the Royal Philharmonic as it would later be with the Dresden Staatskapelle; but, if anything, it's just a touch more spontaneous. It's as though the hiker on the mountainside is a little younger and a little more impetuous than the later climber. Still, the differences in interpretation are hardly worth mentioning and both performances are unmatched. With the new Testament, it's the remastered sound that impresses one.

The accompanying Horn Concerto with Kempe, the RPO, and the great Alan Civil makes a fine pairing. The playing is just as good as in the symphony, and the sound is just as good as well. One could hardly ask for more, big and Romantic and warmly performed.

Is there anything I truly disliked about the album? Well, yes, but it's almost too trivial to mention. I don't like the sepia-tinged portrait of the conductor on the Testament cover. I wish they had used the original RCA cover picture of a snow-covered mountain. But that's just me. I like gazing at album covers that put me in a mood for the music. Cover pictures of conductors (or composers) don't exactly do it for me. Also, Testament includes an excellent set of booklet notes, mostly about the conductor, but they use such tiny print, they're a genuine chore to read.

The respected conductor, arranger, and producer Charles Gerhardt along with the equally respected ex-Decca engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the music for Reader's Digest/RCA at Kingsway Hall, London in April 1966. It was the first stereo recording of the symphony, and everyone involved was worthy of the project. In 2008 Paul Baily of Re:Sound remastered the recording for Testament, and I finally came upon it in 2016. Better late than never, I suppose.

As I mentioned above, I was never a fan of the original LP sonics, and I never actually heard its first CD release except to read the generally bad reviews about its sound. Which is why I can tell you how excited I am about how good the Testament remaster sounds. Yes, it's a trifle bright and, yes, the bass could be a tad stronger. That said, we have a sound field that is wide and deep, clean and open, and ever so transparent. Highs, if a bit forward, sparkle; midrange is as clear as anyone could desire; and bass is still more than adequate. If you wanted to spend about five extra seconds, you could turn the treble down a notch and the bass up a tick, and you'd have as good an audiophile disc as you could find. (OK, I know that real audiophiles would never consider tweaking the sound of a recording; if one doesn't play the disc exactly as it comes, it's cheating or something. But, trust me, just do it, in the privacy of your own living room, and no one will ever know.)


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

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Meet the Staff

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 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa