STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64. Suite from
When Webmeister Benson asked if I’d be interested in reviewing this new Alpensinfonie -- Richard Strauss’ last hurrah for a monster orchestra of pre-War 1 proportions -- curiosity overcame the seeds of suspicion. I mean, Strauss in full cry, with an organ added to 20 horns, six each of trumpets and trombones, two bass-tubas and even a wind machine -- this is Benson-territory as much as the Bavarian Alps were the composer’s. Demonstrating his new French speakers last year, R.E.B. chose (after the obligatory finale from Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony) Strauss’ Alpine thunderstorm -- Lorin Maazel’s RCA/BMG Munich version, in surround sound no less. Driving home afterwards, I tried to remember whose Alpine was the first I ever heard (although never a live performance in 60-plus years of concertgoing): Strauss’ own in 1940 with the Bavarian State Orchestra, or Karl Böhm’s postwar mono version from Dresden on DGG, issued stateside by American Decca? Neither had persuaded me that the Alpine was more than a humongous platter of tripe, cabbage and dumplings without gravy.
A 1971 EMI stereodisk conducted by Rudolf Kempe, this too from Dresden, finally made me listen with respect bordering on admiration. More or less contemporaneously, London published a Los Angeles Philharmonic rowdydow with Zubin Mehta, terrifically well recorded in Royce Hall on the UCLA campus, but otherwise a sow’s ear inside a sonic silk purse. Then for a longish spell the slopes were unchallenged until Herbert von Karajan took up the score -- on DGG with the Berlin Philharmonic -- which caused British and German critics to wet themselves, but which I loathed and wrote so (possibly in Fanfare), likening it to a self-preening Pasha’s procession up a Himalayan foothill, in a gilded litter carried by an army of sherpas, while inside he ate date-candies and sipped Liebfraumilch. Playing was untidy compared to Kempe’s Dresden revelation, and the recorded sound a control-panel conflation of too many inputs.
I found an EMI digital remake by Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra musically eloquent, but remember Webmeister Benson (long before there was a web) not liking the sound at all. Subsequently, a veritable host of conductors took up the piece -- Solti, Previn, Ashkenazy, Horst Stein, Blomstedt, de Waart, the ubiquitous Järvi of course, Frühbeck de Burgos, Norman del Mar, and possibly more. I don’t know all of those versions -- not Ashkenazy’s, Stein’s, Blomstedt’s, or the last two named. But one colleague sent me a 1989 remake by Mehta with the Berlin Phil on Sony (produced coincidentally by David Mottley, who had been Kempe’s man in Dresden 18 years earlier). It wasn’t bad - in fact more cleanly played than Karajan’s, and a helluva lot more straightforward (i.e. less narcissistic). I kept it for reference because, at the time, I had no other CD version - only cassette dubs of Haitink’s CD and Kempe’s LP (with a necessary break in continuity because of the Alpine’s ca. 50-minute length). If I’ve dodged the subject of Maazel, I didn’t much care for him interpretively, and don’t like hearing music in-the-round.
Now DGG has made another effort to scale Strauss’ Bavarian Alp (Karajan continues to be listed as “Gold,” while the plodding Böhm is back among “The Originals”). Christian Thielemann, who conducts the same Vienna Philharmonic that Previn led on Telarc, is DGG’s new podium Gladiator, so to speak. His version is a “live recording” made last October of a performance Viennese critics went ape over - you can read excerpts in the program-book if you buy the disc. Thielemann adds the 1945 Rosenkavalier Suite in which Strauss had no hand, except to sign his name and collect royalties from Boosey & Hawkes (his indifference to the opera, once it had been completed in 1911, remains a source of astonishment 90 years later). By now it has been generally accepted that Artur Rodzinski did the job, which I’ve always thought a good one; but then I liked Ántal Doráti’s suite that Eugene Goossens and the Cincinnati Symphony recorded for RCA Victor in 1945, when 20-year-old Gunther Schuller played first horn with the panache of a Brain, almost as finely as Dennis.
Thielemann’s work that I’ve heard to date has been uneven: an interesting combination of early R. Strauss rarities and orchestral music by Hans Pfitzner, using his own Berlin opera orchestra on DGG; but grotesquely mannered performances of the Beethoven 5th and 7th Symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Philips. A couple of seasons back he conducted a Metopera telecast of Strauss’ Arabella that I watched - anyway, I think it was Arabella; a lot of Strauss between Der Rosenkavalier and the Four Last Songs tends to blur. I do remember trying to figure out where his beat was exactly, although the orchestra applauded him at the end. Thielemann is tall, strapping, handsome, and takes a terrific picture in front of a Jugendstil door on the inside back cover of the program book. He doesn’t look Teutonic, yet there’s something in his music-making that sounds techtonic.
He wants us to hear every comma in Strauss’ orchestration (even when Strauss meant some of it to create an impressionistic effect), but this recurringly works against Alpensinfonie‘s being the expressive outpouring Strauss obviously intended, cheap though some of it sounds, verging on simple-minded. There’s a through-line, withal, that culminates in a glorious C-major climax “At the Summit,” before the long descent including “Thunder and Tempest,” where everything gets unleashed. At this point, producer/engineer teams have one and all come to some kind of grief, or compromise. I think it was Thielemann’s mistake to want his version recorded live, especially in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal with its anomalous echoes, even when filled to capacity (with a mouse-quiet audience in this case). Offstage brass aren’t sufficiently distanced, the wind-machine adds only an occasional wheeze, and the organ scarcely registers although treble percussion is clearly audible; so are timpani and onstage massed brass. But the sound clots all the same and, coupled with Thielemann’s autopsy where the music needed to exfoliate before and after the storm (which he makes the climax of his performance, not the summit vista), is disappointing. The VPO’s winds contribute some gorgeous solos - no question it remains a virtuoso orchestra despite the absence of a music director, richer in sound than the Berlin (which, however, has become more suavely virtuosic under Abbado).
The Rosenkavalier addendum has a puzzling midcourse pause between “parts” (as the program book lists them, and an editor has cued them). The slow waltzes before sound a shade on the slow side, while the final “Schneller Walzer” seems held back. But the VPO play gloriously; they’ve owned the opera since its Austrian premiere, after Dresden heard the first performance (Dresden also heard the Alpensinfonie immediately after its Staatskapelle introduced the music in Berlin, with Strauss himself conducting). So what about the Alpine? I hadn’t remembered until earlier today, looking into the files, that I’d bought Volume 3 of EMI’s CD reissue of Kempe. I never, though, had played the Alpine in my present abode. The recording may not have a bass-response down to 15dB, but then I don’t have a subwoofer to test that (don’t believe in ‘em, truth to tell). What Kempe’s Alpine does have, however, as Mottley produced it in the Lukaskirche at Dresden, is clarity and a pin-point perspective that puts everything in place, all the while he lets Strauss sing out. Dresden’s trumpets could have opened the pearly gates, and the challenge to record every significant Strauss work for orchestra at a time when Dresden was isolated in the Russian Sector, combines to make Kempe’s the definitive Alpensinfonie. P.S., the 1992 digital transfer is astonishing.
As for Thielemann, I enjoy the finger he’s been giving Daniel Barenboim, who leads Berlin’s rival opera company in the former Russian sector. But Der neue Karajan (much less Wunder)? For all the beauties of playing and structural insight that get through his technical preoccupation, this disc no more persuades me than his eccentric Beethoven interpretations. As for the sound -- DGG must want it that way, obviously. Chacun à son goût.