Record Guide: Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie

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Richard Strauss’ last tone poem, Eine Alpensinfonie, was completed in 1915 and is one of his most magnificent orchestral works – a formidable mountain climb for a colossal symphony orchestra, including an extensive percussion section consisting of both thunder and wind machines.

For a long time, Strauss’ work was seen mainly as a description of a day in the mountains, a kind of postcard from the Alps. However, the magnificent depiction of nature, described in detail in each movement, also expresses Strauss’ more philosophical thoughts on life and man’s relationship with nature.

50-60 years ago, Eine Alpensinfonie was a rarity in the recording studio. The composer himself recorded it with the Bavarian State Orchestra in 1941, a characteristically fast, unsentimental but powerful interpretation.

Karl Böhm recorded his only version of the work with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1957. An interpretation in the spirit of the composer, fast and fresh, but recorded in a somewhat dated mono sound.

Rudolf Kempe was one of the few conductors to record the work in the 1960s and 70s. He made two recordings, the best known being the second, part of his complete Strauss series on EMI (1973) with the Staatskapelle Dresden. A majestic, thoughtful and musically convincing interpretation, with Kempe’s usual warmth and attention to detail.

When we talk about the great experts on the music of Richard Strauss, Zubin Mehta must be mentioned. He has made two recordings of Eine Alpensinfonie, the first in 1975 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Decca being the favourite. Mehta was then at his best, delivering an interpretation with every conceivable virtuosity and orchestral power. And Decca’s analogue sound is dazzling.

Sir Georg Solti was one of the first major conductors to release the work on record, in 1980. His Decca recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is, as expected, very powerful, but also offers much nuance and detail in the orchestra. Solti’s interpretation is also faster than usual, so some of the magic of the music is lost, but this is compensated for by the drive and drama of the interpretation.

The 1980s and 90s saw something of a renaissance for the work, with a number of fine recordings by conductors such as Seiji Ozawa/Vienna Philharmonic (Philips), Kurt Masur/Gewandhausorchester (Philips), Daniel Barenboim/Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Erato), Vladimir Ashkenazy/Cleveland Orchestra (Decca), Lorin Maazel/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (RCA) and Christian Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic (DG) among others.

 

Among the interpretations that stand out is that of Giuseppe Sinopoli’s. With a flair for opera and a penchant for the late Romantic repertoire, he was, of course, tailor-made for Strauss’ majestic masterpiece. His interpretation with the Staatskapelle Dresden for Deutsche Grammophon (1993) is both dramatic and visionary.

Herbert Blomstedt’s version with the San Francisco Symphony on Decca is one of the most interesting interpretations, in which the Swedish conductor’s sense of building a piece of music without exaggeration triumphs. The work is given a dignity and humanity that makes this recording unique. The sound is also absolutely brilliant.

André Previn is one of the great Strauss conductors and has made two recordings of the work, the second with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2002 with spectacular sound from Telarc being the best. Rarely has Eine Alpensinfonie sounded as rich on record as in this recording.

Mariss Jansons conducted and recorded Strauss’ music regularly throughout his career, and two recordings of Eine Alpensinfonie survive on record. The best is the second, from 2016, with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra on their own label. It has a little more warmth and imagination than the earlier one with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Jansons’ interpretation has a characteristic humanism and a majestic fervour.

 

In recent years, Andris Nelsons has made a number of spectacular Strauss releases for Orfeo and Deutsche Grammophon, including two fine recordings of Eine Alpensinfonie. The latter, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (2017), stands out for its sophisticated and intense orchestral playing. If you want a modern recording in good sound, Nelsons’ is the way to go.

 

The BIS recording with the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra and Frank Shipway from 2012 is one of the most sonically spectacular, with a rich SACD sound. Shipway’s interpretation is nuanced but also monumentally powerful, with the Brazilian orchestra proving capable of holding its own with more famous ensembles.

The “Top three”

Haitink’s first recording with the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam (Philips, 1985) brings something new to the work. Haitink emphasises the long lines and the work takes on an architectural structure, with the music gradually building to powerful climaxes. It is a particularly persuasive interpretation, with a clear sound picture in which the whole is at the centre.

Horst Stein was not the starry-eyed conductor often portrayed in the media, but he was a highly competent orchestral conductor with an unfailing feel for the German concert and opera repertoire over a long career. His Eine Alpensinfonie with the Bamberger Symphoniker on RCA/Eurodisc (1988) is one of the very best. The music is utterly convincing in its majestic splendour, building to an interpretation of striking overall effect.

In many ways, it was Herbert von Karajan’s 1980 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon that rediscovered Eine Alpensifonie and made it part of the standard repertoire. More than 40 years on, the recording is still an obvious first choice. Karajan is in control, giving the music a sensuality and ecstasy that only he could achieve. The Berlin Philharmonic plays with its usual virtuosity and dedication under its then chief conductor.

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