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.
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: