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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Eine Alpensinfonie Op.64 [51:03]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. November 2014, Gothenburg Konzerthaus FARAO CLASSICS B108091 [51:03]
Eine Alpensinfonie, Strauss’s cinematic climb up a mountain and back down again, is rarely performed but quite often recorded, usually with spectacular results. It requires a massive orchestra with parts for a thunder machine, wind machine, cow bells and organ plus - as featured on this CD - 20 French horns. The orchestral personnel on this new recording numbers 120 players.
The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra has quite a pedigree when it comes to Richard Strauss. The orchestra performed Don Juan in its inaugural season in 1905-1906 and Eine Alpensinfonie, the last of Strauss’s large orchestral pieces, entered the orchestra’s repertoire with Otmar Suitner in 1975. Although the orchestral forces are huge, the kitchen sink elements are only used as and when they are required to tell a story - for example in the storm section. Indeed, there are very few pages of bombast and some of the finer passages are to be heard in the score’s more intimate moments.
This new version doesn’t possess the spectacular glamour of the old Decca/Mehta recording, but in terms of orchestral playing and natural recording it is streets ahead of its Los Angeles rival. The Gothenburg brass section doesn’t quite have the bite and tone of the Bavarians under Solti but that is not to imply that the brass playing, on the whole, is in any way understated. It isn’t. The key here is that Nagano keeps his brass under control and allows other sections of the orchestra to be heard through the texture, often with incredible clarity. The engineers have captured details that simply aren’t present in other recordings.
Nagano’s approach is to stress the lyrical moments rather than the garish climaxes. The Gothenburg string section is exceptional and their beautiful sound steals the show from the rest of the admittedly very fine orchestra. The opening of the work is mysterious and foreboding, followed by a vigorous ascent. The off stage horns are nicely balanced and - unlike Mehta and the LAPO - manage to stay in time with the orchestra. The conductor’s sensitive handling of the Alpine forests and meadows catches the breath and it’s in these lyrical passages that the reading is at its best. The cow bells are somewhat timid compared with those used by Kempe in his marvellous RCA version with the Royal Philharmonic. The magnificent Zarathustra climax is frankly a bit of a damp squib. The bass trombone doesn’t cut through and for me there isn’t the expected hair raising effect usually associated with this enthralling moment. The storm is also slightly underpowered. In Nagano’s favour, he manages to keep the piece moving forward in a continuous flow rather than allowing it to become a series of unconnected events. The final pages and the descent into darkness are superbly handled.
In short, this is a well-engineered disc with immaculate orchestral playing and a tasteful concept of the work as a whole. I would recommend it as a second version for its lyrical qualities and clarity of detail. In other words, it’s a refreshing change. Unfortunately as an overall spectacle it falls just short of the very best. The playing time is also miserly.