STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64; Don Juan, Op. 20. San Francisco Symphony, Herbert Blomstedt conducting. London 421815-2 .
STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64; Serenade in E flat major, Op. 7. Minnesota Orchestra, Edo de Waart conducting. Virgin Classics VC7-91102-2 .STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64; Concerto No. 1 in E flat major for Horn, Op. 11. Gerd Seifert, horn; Berlin Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta conducting. Sony Classical SK-45800 .
STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64. Vienna Philharmonic, Andre Previn conducting. Telarc CD-80211 .
STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64. Bamberg Symphony, Horst Stein conducting. Eurodisc 69012-2-RG .
Apparently it has taken the digital age to make something of a standard-repertory item of Richard Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony," at least on records. The result is five
RECORDnew recordings - count 'em, five - on the heels of two or three others and, for all I know, no end in sight.
I first got to know the piece through the composer's own 1941 recording with the Bavarian State Orchestra, which for all its savvy was simply too antiquated in sound to do this lavishly orchestrated opus justice. (Among other things, it employs 20 horns, an organ and a wind machine, a la "Don Quixote.")
In his liner notes for the Herbert Blomstedt recording listed above, Michael Steinberg actually apologizes for the work, calling it "a first-rate piece of second-rate Strauss." But is it? After going through the above recordings, plus a good many others, I was surprised to find my taste for it as keen as ever, maybe keener, and that can't be laid to sonic superiority alone.
Compositionally it somehow bridges the worlds of "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Die Frau ohne Schatten," with which it is roughly contemporaneous, without ever really drawing on either. What it does seem to me to draw on, interestingly, are the larger symphonic canvases of Gustav Mahler (who died while Strauss was working on the piece), especially the Eighth Symphony, with its grandiose striving for its own musical and, by extension, spiritual summit.
For where "Zarathustra" descends from the mountain, in this work - really more of a tone poem than a symphony per se - Strauss ascends it, complete with a sunrise, sheep (or are they cows?) in the meadow, a triumphant attainment of the icy peak then, on the way down, a thunderstorm and the lowering of the sun, and ultimately man himself, into the night.
That was first dramatically communicated on compact disc by Herbert von Karajan on his still-in-print DG recording, a bit primitive-sounding by current standards but a performance of real sweep and magnificence. In very much the same league is the new Blomstedt recording, a similarly expansive view of the piece that is nonetheless more vigorous in spots (e.g., "The Ascent") and occasionally more majestic.
Ditto Andre Previn's, the latest installment in his ongoing Strauss cyle for Telarc and in some ways the best. Initially things seem a trifle heavy, but by the time Previn reaches the summit and begins working his way down, this impresses as one of the most stunningly registered "Alpine Symphonies" on disc, only partly due to the weight of orchestra and Telarc's typically impactive recorded sound. (Check out the tellingly detailed buildup to the storm.)
Another performance that held my attention, in this case from first note to last, is Horst Stein's, for Eurodisc. Not only does he secure first-class playing from the Bamberg Symphony, but he also manages to take the piece in a single leap, as it were, in a dramatically alive rendition that may be a bit leaner than some (including the somewhat metallic recorded sound) but which vividly illuminates the writing.
Here, for example, you can almost see the morning sun glinting off the snow, and there is a silvery quality to the apparition by the waterfall that is, remarkably enough, later mirrored in the knife-edge brilliance of the storm.
In some ways Zubin Mehta, on Sony Classical, offers an even more extrovert view. It may lack the depths, and for that matter the heights, of Karajan, Blomstedt and, at his best, Previn, coming across as very midrange spiritually and acoustically. Still, the calm before the storm registers winningly, and never have the "Frau" parallels been more forcefully underlined.
Against this Edo de Waart, on Virgin, is more lyrically oriented, tempering the Straussian excess with grace and warmth. In short, he does not fight his way up the mountain the way some conductors do. At the same time the storm is whipped up nicely, profiting additionally from recorded sound I would rank with Telarc's and London's, and, as opposed to Karajan's, the offstage horns are here really offstage.
For the record, all the above recordings offer internal banding, except Previn's, which offers indexing. Fillers, on those that include them, range from Blomstedt's disciplined "Don Juan" to Mehta and Seifert's Horn Concerto No. 1, here dashed through with virtuosity to spare (to the point where the finale sounds rushed). My favorite: De Waart's affectionate account of the early wind Serenade, which in fact restores that piece to the catalog.
I have to say, however, that the more I listened the more impressed I was by how good all these recordings are, at least of the "Alpine Symphony." Which I realize may not simplify your choice, but then neither did it mine.