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Richard Strauss'sEine Alpensinfonie
A partial survey of the discography by Ralph Moore
As an unwavering devotee of Strauss’ so-called “tone poems” - really a mistranslation of the German Tondichtungen, better rendered as “symphonic poems” or “sound poems” – I am puzzled by the virulence of the objections of those who do not succumb to the charms of Eine Alpensinfonie. Strauss is loftily dismissed as a “mere Realist” or a writer of “programme music” or, even more contemptuous, “film music”. It is still the case that in some quarters this score is derided as prolix, flashy and meretricious: “musical onomatopoeia” being another of the more scornful dismissals I have heard, “jejune travelogue” being another, and, perhaps worst of all, “a first-rate piece of second-rate Strauss.” Snobbish opprobrium towards this work, and accusations that the composer had a weakness for bombast are hardly new phenomena; in his excellent accompanying notes, James Murray in his notes for the Judd recording quotes Strauss’ librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal as having a poor opinion of the music Strauss had composed up until the start of their collaboration and of lamenting that the composer had “such a frightful bent towards triviality and kitsch.”
Personally, I see no problem with programmatic music when it is done this well and it seems to me that one might just as easily tar the Pastoral Symphony with the same brush; some of my favourite classical pieces are narrative or descriptive. Admittedly, works such as the Pastoral and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, still adhere to the symphonic form but others like Mussorgsky’s Night Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead are freer and looser in structure – and every bit as enjoyable, so I cannot see the problem.
Besides, apart from being one of the most brilliantly pictorial of works
– remember, Strauss boasted that he could “set a soup spoon
to music” – An Alpine Symphony is also both a masterpiece
of inventive orchestration on a huge scale; it is fascinating to recall
that while Strauss was engaged in writing this gargantuan tone poem,
he was simultaneously working on the most intimate and chamber-like
of his compositions, Ariadne auf Naxos; the scoring of those
two contemporaneous works could hardly be more different. Finally, it
is also in part a philosophical manifesto; as well as telling the story
of the ascent and descent of a mountain, based on a boyhood experience,
Strauss enshrined in this composition his essentially pagan convictions
- consolidated by his reading of Nietzsche - which centred on “moral
purification through one's own strength, liberation through work,
worship of eternal, magnificent nature”.
Furthermore, Strauss resumed work on the abandoned draft on the day that he learned of the death of Mahler’s – another great composer not above specifically depicting material scenes and events with the help of such lowly instruments as cowbells.
All I can say is that I love this, Strauss’ last tone poem, and take delight in its self-consciously grandiose and histrionic orchestral effects. Some of the most enjoyable live concerts I have attended have featured this work, most recently with Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO, and Santtu-Matias Rouvali with the Philharmonia, but there were many others previously, as I have rarely missed the chance to luxuriate in the sound of 125 instruments co-ordinated by a master orchestrator and brought to life by a great orchestra in order to make the most marvellous racket. The experience of a live performance does not always translate seamlessly to the recorded medium, but several live recordings below more than make the grade.
There are something like fifty recordings in the discography and I do not propose to cover them all, but I consider the twenty I either have or have had in my own collection and I am confident that there are among them many wholly recommendable versions. In fact, the problem regarding selection here is that so many are so recommendable and very few disappoint – but that is a pleasant dilemma. All are digital except for the first two under Kempe and Solti; a mono, historical recording simply cannot cut it in this music, so I am not, for example, including Böhm’s 1957 mono account.
(Many of the reviews below are adapted from those previously posted on the MusicWeb or Amazon websites.)
The Recordings Rudolf Kempe/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, studio rec. 1966,
By all accounts, Kempe commanded respect and affection from his orchestras and that is confirmed by the special sense of joy emanating from the music-making here. Everything about it is right; even the full, warm sound is spectacular for so old a recording (made in the grateful acoustic of the Kingsway Hall in 1966 and 1967). The odd minor blemish notwithstanding, the RPO sounds to be full of virtuosi.
There is beauty, balance, power and tension in this Alpensinfonie; it is not the sonic blockbuster you get from Shipway, Sinopoli or Karajan and in truth I like a little more garish showmanship rather than the refinement Kempe applies, but everything is so well gauged that both the lyrical and the epic qualities emerge at every turn. The only hint of excess is in the amusing over-zealousness of the application of the cowbells.
Unless you are allergic to the brash allure of Strauss let off the leash – in which case I doubt that Eine Alpensinfonie is to your taste in any case – this will not satisfy – but I mention it as an option for those who value finesse over raw power.
Sir Georg Solti/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, studio rec. 1979 Decca
At something over 44 minutes and the fastest here by far, this is a typical Solti recording in that its approach is the polar opposite of, say, Thielemann, who opts for a weighty, even languorous, lyricism, whereas with Solti all is drive, discipline and dynamism. That propulsion is sometimes achieved at the expense of orchestral opulence (Karajan) or nuanced delicacy (Kempe) but if you enjoy Solti’s crisp precision and thrilling momentum, this will work for you.
The orchestral playing is of course glorious – especially the
brass – but one immediately notices that the climbers are charging
up the slope. It’s by no means all hurry and Solti does relax
to take in the pastoral view but the climax sells us short – in
fact the brass are doing all the work there and sadly, somehow atmosphere
and magic go missing. Similarly, the storm music is compromised by a
lack of menace, the wind machine comes through as shrill and weedy and
the postlude sounds mechanical, lacking poise and sublimity.
The analogue sound has cleaned up nicely via digital remastering although it hasn’t the depth and brilliance of more recent digital recordings by such as Thielemann and Jansons, even though they are recorded live.
Although its failure is only relative, this is a rare Solti misfire: a comparatively dull recording.
Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker, studio rec. 1980, DG
The status of this recording as the earliest digital classic was initially compromised by the shrill, shallow sound which made the violins shriek and was literally a pain in the ears; it has long since been happily remastered to surprisingly satisfactory effect, which allows this recording to reclaim its spot.
An atmosphere of profound mystery is established from the start by the bassoons and double bases growling above the strings' sustained F in the B minor cluster, resolving to B flat major chord then a glorious A major diapason depicting the sunrise. In fact, there are so many such moments in this account that it would be superfluous to detail them all, but to mention one at random, "On the summit" is simply overwhelming with its aureate brass, stringendo strings and extraordinary sonorities. The whole recording is just one grand, astounding sweep of virtuosic playing from the BPO and Das Wunder Karajan is in full control without in any sense stifling the rapture of their sound or the virulence of their attack.
There are indeed a few minor instances of blemish in coordination in ensemble - between the bass line and the horns, for example – but Karajan was always willing to let them pass if the spirit of the music-making was right – and here it could not be more so. This was also Mark Simpson’s first choice in the recent BBC Radio 3 Record Review; it belongs in the collection of every Strauss aficionado.
Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, studio rec. 1985, Philips
Distinguished and recently departed veteran conductor Bernard Haitink was renowned for his long-standing relationship with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He gained a reputation for being somewhat "correct" and at times too subtle for his own good - or the good of those of us who have more plebeian tastes – but this recording bucked the trend in his tendency to play it safe and long been promoted as one of their best collaborations. I bought it for one penny plus postage and packing, and certainly from that perspective it was the bargain of the century; it is still available at knock-down prices to anyone interested in acquiring an example of Haitink in more released mode directing one of the world's most polished and virtuosic orchestras.
Having said that, all things are relative, and in comparison with the latest digital blockbusters such as the recordings by Shipway, Sinopoli or Thielemann, all of whom take the more overt approach to this music and go for broke, both the sound and the interpretation here are a little less impressive: the early digital recording is clean and crisp but a little glassy, without the depth and impact of those two later discs and the performance, while exquisitely shaded and beautifully judged, does not reach transcendence in the manner of Karajan; I found myself admiring the playing rather than being swept along by it.
Nonetheless, few will be disappointed by it unless they are already acquainted with those other versions - in which case, they need hardly add this excellent, but ultimately superseded, version to their collections.
Zubin Mehta/Berlin Philharmoniker, studio rec. 1989, Sony
Mehta is working here In April 1986 with what is still essentially Karajan’s BPO – Karajan died the following July – which is very evident in the richness and sonority of the orchestral textures in a recording very similar to Karajan’s own. At his best and when not on autopilot, Mehta has always been very fine indeed; this is a thoroughly satisfying with plenty of pulse and momentum but lacking the rhythmic snap Karajan could inject into phrasing and the recording and the recording is slightly soft-edged. Mehta gives us a marginally gentler, more lyrical account but his engagement is apparent in his little exhortative grunts to his players – which are only occasionally obtrusive.
“Auf dem Gipfel” is the highlight it should be - a rapt oboe solo over shimmering strings playing very quietly – so difficult to do steadily – and the climactic C major “sun theme” chord is electrifying. Mehta conjures up ample mystery and menace in the descent and the storm is splendidly chaotic – in the right way – and the organ is the postlude is aptly prominent and hieratic, leading into a wonderfully brooding conclusion.
This might not be a first choice but it remains admirable – especially as my copy is coupled with one of the best Four Last Songs: Kiri Te Kanawa’s first version.
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony, studio rec. 1989, Decca
For a decade from 1985, Blomstedt made a series of justly acclaimed recordings with the San Francisco Symphony, many of Nordic composers’ works, but Strauss also featured prominently. Blomstedt’s many virtues are immediately on display: perfectly judged tempi, clarity of instrumental line, carefully gauged dynamics – but for me, one thing is missing which I can only describe rather vaguely and unsatisfactorily, as temperament; I find the whole performance cool and controlled - beautifully controlled, it is true, but somehow uninvolving. I take the liberty of quoting Victor Carr on the Classics Today website, from his review of Blomstedt’s recording of another Strauss piece: “He’s much more concerned with musical line than with splashy effects, rounding off phrases and seamlessly dovetailing the various sections.” He means that as a high compliment; for me, that represents a potential weakness in showstopper Strauss, which does not demand subtlety. I remain comparatively unexalted by the famous mountain-top revelation; it seems too careful and calculated - although I find the preamble to the Vision more powerfully affecting and the storm – where several recordings prove to be slightly lacking - is especially vigorous, and I am fully prepared to attribute my faintly apathetic response to personal taste, as I know others prize this recording. My reaction to this recording mirrors my findings when I reviewed another of Blomstedt’s Strauss discs, reissued by Presto.
The sound is Decca demonstration quality but oddly, no wind machine is audible in the storm.
André Previn/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, studio rec. 1989, Telarc
Previn made a series of four fine Strauss recordings with for Telarc in the 80’s; his Also Sprach Zarathustra, also with the VPO as per here, is especially celebrated; the sense of brooding menace and mystery conjured up in the opening bars augurs promisingly for a recording of Eine Alpensinfonie which will be just as fine. I think his achievements as a conductor are still routinely undervalued, yet he here displays all the qualities required at the head of one of the finest orchestras in the world, maintaining a firm grip on the sequence of scenes and always choosing apt tempi, eschewing undue lingering or unseemly haste. He shared with Karajan that almost indefinable presence which marks out the finest performances and how the superb Telarc sound captures the sonority of a great orchestra obviously has a lot to do with that: the climactic explosion of sound on the summit is a real goosebumps moment. The storm, too, is a splendid cacophony, then Previn finds the right moods of exaltation, then repose for the descent of night once more; the final pages are exquisitely controlled – although I wish Previn had made more of the glissando in “Night” that Strauss demands, as its diminution – omission? – mitigates the chilling effect he intended.
That is a small fault; overall, this is one of the most compelling and satisfying recordings in the catalogue.
Mariss Jansons/BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, live rec. 1991, BBC Music Magazine
There are some gems of live recordings among those CDs accompanying the BBC Music Magazine and this is certainly one of them. I do not claim that the standard of playing is as elevated as the very best but the BBC Welsh is really very good – so it’s a pity about the clarinet squeak at 1'36" in the penultimate track. Otherwise, the sound is first rate with only a very occasional irritating cough and the execution of the work is excellent. My main reservations are that Jansons takes some of the earlier sections at quite a lick so some of their potential mystery and grandeur is sacrificed to sheer breathless propulsion, and the cowbells are rather close, loud and coarse - but the great climactic passage "Auf dem Gipfel" is impressive: spacious and sonorous. The organ in the last few minutes is rather too prominent - but it makes a change to be able to hear it so well. This might not be a first recommendation – there are sonically and aesthetically superior versions, especially Jansons’ own later live recording (see below) - but it is still highly enjoyable.
James Judd/European Union Youth Orchestra, studio rec. 1991/2, Alto
The sound quality here is first-rate, although there is some evident deliberate boosting of solo instruments at key points, such as the organ at the conclusion, and this foregrounding is not entirely natural. Special praise is due to the twenty horns who play flawlessly and a band of which is atmospherically positioned for the “offstage” hunting passage. The 130 members of the EU Youth Orchestra play with razor-sharp precision and generate the most extraordinary sonority, with plenty of sheen on the strings and a rich, deep bass line.
There is very little variation in the timings of the various versions with which I am acquainted and everything I look for in a satisfying performance of this work is present here, from the mysterious, brooding B flat minor pedal which opens it, to its resumption at the close. The A major diapason depicting sunrise is magnificent, as is the great, weighty C major climax of “Auf dem Gipfel”. The serene clarinet and bassoon solos before the storm section and the flutes and piccolos imitating eagles’ cries are wonderfully pictorial and there is a really joyous swing to the melodious passage, taken at a suitably brisk pace, conjuring up the flowery meadows where the cows graze. The more discordant and disturbing sections suggestive of dangerous moments on the glacier and the ferocity of the storm are played with remarkable unity and precision. Indeed, the whole piece is played with great verve and momentum such that there is never any danger of it fragmenting into an episodic series of vignettes; Judd presides over a truly cohesive narrative.
I can unhesitatingly add this super-bargain Alto release to my list of favourite recordings list, not least for the sumptuousness of the sound and the virtuosity of the youthful orchestra.
(The recording date is wrongly stated as 1979/80 on the back cover of the CD; the booklet says 1991/2, which is presumably correct.)
Giuseppe Sinopoli/Staatskapelle Dresden, live rec. 1993, DG
Sinopoli was always wonderful - except when he wasn’t, although you could always rely upon him to be interesting and indeed, sometimes fascinating, in that he rarely did things conventionally. This recording is happily in the first camp and his artistry is enhanced by extraordinarily vivid DG digital sound in a live recording untroubled by any extraneous noise except a few creaks. I was gripped from the first bars by the power and clarity of Sinopoli’s direction. Some find his phrasing and dynamics too calculated but for me they are the product of joined-up thinking and every facet of Strauss’ extraordinarily rich and complex orchestration emerges pristine. Sinopoli finds more lilt than many in the pastoral passages and ensures that the solo instrument riffs and the contributions of individual instruments are spotlighted with a kind of chamber music precision. Thus you will always clearly hear the noodlings of the wind instruments under the blanket of string sound, or the pizzicato of the lower strings under the soaring melodies. This lucidity is never bought at the cost of momentum; Sinopoli never lingers unduly but – as an overall timing of the standard 50 minutes demonstrates - neither does he rush and as a result he confers a unity and homogeneity on the narrative.
The build-up to reaching the summit and the panoramic view thence are both simply majestic and the Dresden brass cover themselves with glory, the hint of lip-strain palpable in the trumpets’ contribution notwithstanding, as it simply adds to the tension – as do Sinopoli’s emphatic little grunts as he urges on his forces. No doubt the fact that the orchestra premiered the work adds to its sense of ownership of the music. The concluding three minutes reprising the ominous opening mood of “Night” - and also, incidentally, giving us the glissando required - provide a suitably mysterious conclusion to a wonderful performance.
This was one of the few recordings new to me when I undertook this survey and I was unprepared – although ultimately not wholly surprised, given my familiarity with Sinopoli’s pre-eminence in Strauss’ music – to discover how absorbing it is.
Lorin Maazel/Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, studio rec. 1998, Musical Heritage Society
Maazel is still under-rated in the music of Richard Strauss and here's a recording from 1998 to bolster his standing alongside accepted masters such as Karajan, Reiner, Kempe, Ormandy et al. I had long loved Maazel's Also sprach Zarathustra with the same orchestra, originally issued on CD depicting the conductor with electric blue "magic hands", so was pretty sure this, too, would be worth investigating and now rate this recording of AnAlpine Symphony highly for the breadth, clarity and grandeur of the playing here. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has long been a first-rate band and heavily employed in recording; very often hear in them the kind of weight and assurance we used to hear from the BPO in its heyday. Furthermore, they are served by premium quality sound, deep, rich, clear and perfectly balanced, so that the hunting horns and the organ at the close of the work are very present without being overpowering or artificially boosted. Although Maazel rises magnificently to the climaxes, there is always a wealth of detail to be heard in the instrumental lines - indeed, I don't remember hearing those "inner voices" so clearly before. However, it is only fair to add that there is an element of control and restraint in Maazel's shaping of Strauss' long, soaring phrases that places the emphasis upon opulence of sound over excitement, so some listeners might wish for the wilder abandon we encounter in less micro-managed accounts.
Christian Thielemann/Wiener Philharmoniker, live rec. 2000, DG
Responses to music are notoriously subjective but I am mystified by some of the criticisms I have read of this disc; if you were to trust them you would think that this is a sub-standard dud in almost every way. It seems to me that, for example, both the official Amazon.com reviewer and the BBC Music Magazine back in 2001 got it totally wrong. However, I am with other trusted reviewers on this one: for me, it is a magnificent, newly thought-out, thrilling performance – and it elicited a host of encomia from the Viennese music press who first heard it live in October 2000. It has all of the advantages of a live performance which “clicks" and virtually none of the attendant disadvantages; the audience are very well behaved and the recording engineers did a great job in bringing out the multiple layers of this vast work. Yes, if you compare it with studio recordings occasionally a line might be a little too recessed or an individual instrument submerged, but it strikes me as absurd to moan that the wind machine is sometimes inaudible or that the balance is artificial when the playing is so sumptuous; it sounds to me as if we are getting as faithful a reproduction as possible of the ambience in the Grosse Saal. All I know is that the disc sounds fabulous on my Bose, on KEF speakers, or through Sennheiser and Bose headphones and I was bowled over by the virtuosity of the Vienna Philharmoniker (virtually flawless live; no re-takes or splicing here), the subtlety and grandeur of Thielemann's conception and the brilliance and immediacy of the sound. You will immediately be struck by the growling heckelphone, grumbling contrabassoon and blurting tubas before the battery of horns positioned offstage intone their hunting call – all expertly caught here.
Thielemann’s approach is primarily lyrical but it’s a lyricism anchored by tremendous weight of orchestral tone and the grandeur of the climactic passage “At the Summit” is overwhelming – as good as Karajan – and try 2:55, track 12, “Vision” – wow! Alongside Sinopoli’s, this goes straight onto my list of favourite live recordings.
Franz Welser-Möst/Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, studio rec. 2004, EMI
At just over 46 minutes – two minutes slower than Solti but without his usual gift for generating tension (I say “usual” as that is in fact oddly absent from his own recording as per above) - this recording sounds simply rushed to my ears. Climaxes sound harried and at key points melodies which should be grand, broad and noble go for little, coming across as perfunctory; the “Vision” is fleeting without sublimity. On the other hand, the playing is superb and Welser-Möst is especially good at clarifying and bringing forward individual instrumental lines, so the listener will perceive details lost in performances which luxuriate in a wash of sound – but that’s not enough to compensate for the prevailing sense of haste. To me, it sounds as though Welser-Möst just can’t wait to get his kids down and off that dangerous old mountain.
Antoni Wit/Staatskapelle Weimar, studio rec. 2005, Naxos
Revisiting this recording and comparing it with several others has made me realise that I had previously slightly over-praised it, perhaps swayed by the fact that reviewers both on Amazon and in other forums have expressed understandable enthusiasm that such a good performance may be found on a budget label.
Nonetheless, they have slightly exaggerated its merits. The distinguished Staatskapelle Weimar orchestra cannot really compare with the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic for opulence, virtuosity and sheen. It is also true that, able though he is, Wit does not generate the same excitement or exercise the same masterful control over the shape of music which can easily sprawl and become intermittently lethargic unless either tension or a sense of mystery are maintained. This is highly episodic, programme music in which the sections need to be welded together to avoid seeming fractured and there are times in Wit's account when the momentum sags. He takes only three minutes or so overall longer than his main competitors but of course that crude measurement doesn't tell you much beyond suggesting greater leisureliness; in fact, Karajan and co are often both faster and slower at key points and it is Wit's steadiness which is the problem.
Even if there are superior recordings, I doubt whether many purchasers will experience disappointment with this Naxos issue - until they make direct comparisons with those greater versions...
Frank Shipway/São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, studio rec. 2012, BIS SACD
I have bought everything Frank Shipway recorded before his premature demise in a road accident, as he did not feel obliged to be a cog in anyone's machine and as such preserved an artistic integrity which is reflected in the brilliance of his comparatively few recordings.
I don't have SACD but even on my standard stereo equipment the sound here is superb: rich, full detailed with real depth and very wide frequency response, capturing the deep organ pedal required for the glacier music up to the shrieking "eagles’ cries" of the flutes and piccolos, without requiring the listener to fiddle with the volume. I would defy anyone to listen to the São Paulo Orchestra and not assume that this is one of the dozen top bands in the world, they play with such confidence, accuracy and brio. It's true that the strings don't exactly have a burnished sound but the brass and woodwind are magnificent and Shipway controls the unfolding of the audio-narrative with unerring judgement, melding the disparate episodes into a thrilling sequence that never sounds disjointed or too unrelentingly "full on". There must be a temptation to ditch any attempts at subtlety and just let the massive, 125-piece band just deliver the Big Bow-wow sound easily satirised by those who find Strauss vulgar. Shipway is capable of controlling his huge forces to engineer moments of great delicacy and repose - and I love his judicious application of string portamento.
This stands among the very best.
Vladimir Jurowski/London Philharmonic Orchestra, live rec. 2016, LPO
Two MWI colleagues have previously reviewed this very positively and I refer you to their comments (reviewreview) with which I agree and to which I have little to add. I was present at the performance during which this recording was made and recall the excitement of the occasion. Both reviewers compare it with their own favourite versions and imply that it does not necessarily eclipse them, but obviously it remains an account of the highest quality.
Mariss Jansons/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, live rec. 2016, BR Klassik
With so many superlative and recommendable recordings already in the field, hailing another as the “best” is foolhardy, but despite my attachment to the classic version from Karajan and recordings by Thielemann, Shipway, and Maazel - with the same orchestra as here - I think this would now be my prime recommendation to anyone new to the work*, simply because of its combination of superb sound, the technical excellence of execution by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the sheer electricity of this performance under Jansons' direction.
These are live recordings, presumably edited from two separate concert performances of each work and the results are flawless; there is no audience noise and apart from the occasional, faintly audible obbligato from the conductor, all one hears is perfect balance among the various components of one great, huge orchestra working in unison. The depth of sound is extraordinary, but every instrumental detail emerges clearly, from the moment that majestic B flat minor pedal sounds the mysterious opening, through to the downward string glissando which heralds the full circle restatement, 51 minutes later, of the same brooding chord, which opened the piece. Especially praiseworthy are the error-free horns, consistently producing aureate tone and perfectly distanced for the hunting episode towards the ending of the section entitled “Der Anstieg” (The Ascent). The timpani, too, are endlessly subtle and varied in their effects; this is one great orchestra.
* Since writing this review, I have become acquainted with the Sinopoli/Dresden version and would heartily recommend that, too, as a prime live recording.
Andrés Orozco-Estrada/Frankfurt Radio Symphony, studio rec. 2016, Pentatone
As much as I love Strauss’ last tone poem, the question must be asked whether we really need yet another recording. I have heard Andrés Orozco-Estrada conduct Mahler and was deeply impressed; he knows how to mould and pace large-scale orchestral works, bringing out their multi-layered textures clearly and building inexorably to the big moments and it’s not so far from Mahler 5 to this piece.
He has here at his disposal a first-class orchestra and their sound is beautiful; however, I am conscious while listening to this of a certain restraint or carefulness in the conductor’s direction, such that I desire more release and a sense of wild ecstasy in this paean to the sublime in Nature and miss the élan of my favourite accounts. That element of deliberateness is borne out by the overall timing being several minutes slower than most recordings; there is some risk of ponderousness, for example in “Auf dem Gipfel” where things should really go into overdrive and my attention starts to wander back to more compelling accounts. For all that, the playing is sumptuous, even if it sometimes lacks tension.
The sound engineering is of course superb, perfectly balanced from the distanced horns to the thunderous storm sequence; every instrumental strand is clear.
Why, unless it’s purely for protection, do designers insist on encasing CDs in superfluous cardboard sleeves which reproduce exactly what in on the plastic case? It’s also a bit cheap these days to give us this one work without a filler; for example, Judd gave us the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and Jansons the whole of Tod und Verklärung.
Vasily Petrenko/Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, studio rec. 2017, LAWO Classics
There is no shortage of recommendable recordings of both the seminal Strauss works here, so any new one has to be good. I am a confirmed admirer of Vasily Petrenko and there is no doubt that the Oslo Philharmonic is a very fine orchestra: smooth, sonorous and virtuosic…and it is in that first epithet wherein lies the rub: the playing here is so elegant and accomplished that I miss the elemental edge and grit required to give this most programmatic of works extra impact. Karajan could with justification be accused of “smoothification” but his famous, pioneering digital recording has considerably more rhythmic bite and tautness of phrasing than Petrenko engineers here. The playing is flawless, the control absolute and the recorded sound superb but it is not as exciting as the best. Climactic moments such as the arrival at the summit and the depiction of the panorama lack something of the impact of favourite versions.
Having said that, I would not want to damn this with faint praise; it contains passages of grandeur and splendour, such as the conclusion of the “Vision” section, Petrenko’s ability to conjure up the sublime mystery of the mountain and the prominence of the organ in the closing tracks are all particularly striking, especially as the digital sound is so vivid.
Not an absolute first choice recording, then, but one which will hardly disappoint and offers the audiophile the advantage of finest sound.
Vladimir Jurowski/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, live rec. 2019, Pentatone
Having heard him conduct in live performance many times, I am a great admirer of Vladimir Jurowski, but the raison d’être of this new recording is questionable. While it is perfectly understandable that an eminent conductor would wish to consign his interpretations of key works to posterity, it is also surely legitimate to wonder how many more new recordings of core repertoire we need, especially when the CD is little more than half-filled with music, leaving ample room for another major work. Furthermore, only five years ago Jurowski made a superb recording of the same work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on their live label which was very positively reviewed by no fewer than three colleagues Of course, one advantage for some prospective purchasers is the fact that the LPO Live recording was standard CD digital whereas this is an SACD - but there are already half a dozen such issues from which the audiophile may choose.
Nonetheless, if this among the finest versions ever committed to disc, my griping loses some of its validity – and this is still very good; Jurowski maintains tension and momentum throughout and the sound is beautifully deep and well-balanced – as we may hear from the perfect placement against the orchestra of the distant hunting horns in The Ascent – and no matter how loud and fast the playing is, everything is transparent and multi-layered, with no hint of overload. The “Alpine Pasture” section is especially is especially atmospheric with some lovely cowbells and bleating sheep, with some good flutter-tonguing from the oboe and E♭ clarinet.
I am less happy, however, with the oboe soloist’s quirky, jerky playing in “On the Summit”; fortunately, the ensuing climactic C major apotheosis is suitably ecstatic, although the tuning in the upper brass is not quite as secure as the very finest versions and previous interpreters such as Shipway are much more imposing still. The Elegy is serene and spacious and the “Calm before the Storm” is suitably tense and baleful; Jurowski judges the sudden change of pace nicely, accelerating into the storm neatly – but I have heard more menacing tempests than the RSB give us here, as the overall impact is somewhat too restrained until the timpani kick in at 2:42 for the last minute and raise the level of excitement. “Sunset” is taken quite swiftly, as Jurowski did with the LPO, but I do not find that it drags or lacks gravitas. “The Quiet Settles” section is serenely played, some minor imperfections from the trumpets and horns notwithstanding, and the descent back into “Night” is smoothly managed.
A brief essay by Jurowski and another by Jörg Peter Urbach helpfully explore how Strauss’ philosophy and relationship with nature inform the “meta-level” of his music and the light, compact, cardboard digipack is attractive.
Good as this is, it does not displace my favourite versions such as the classic Karajan and those by Jansons and Shipway – all three are technically superior in terms of playing - in particular, they are devoid of any blips in note attack in the brass - and the latter two have excellent fillers, offering complete, generous programmes instead of the single work.
As I say in my introduction, the existence of a plethora of first-class recordings renders meaningful recommendation almost irrelevant, but there is a special intensity and a numinous quality to the following recordings – and kudos to the DG of old for sponsoring three of my top five choices:
Sinopoli/Staatskapelle Dresden, 1993 DG
Thielemann/VPO, 2000 DG
Shipway/São Paulo SO, 2012 BIS
Jansons/BRSO 2017 BR Klassik
However, I can in all sincerity also recommend these four wholly successful versions:
Mehta/BPO, 1989 Sony
Previn/VPO, 1989 Telarc
Judd/EUYO, 1991/2 Alto
Jurowski/LPO, 2016 LPO