Mstation Classical Reviews

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Sat, 09 Dec 2006

Strauss tone poem


Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) Op. 64 (1911) [54.14]

Staatskapelle Weimar/Antoni Wit

rec July 2006, Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany DDD

NAXOS 8.557811 [54.14]

Eine Alpensinfonie is the last of Strauss' remarkable series of tone poems. Only in length does it approach the “symphony” of the title but in conception and effect it is every bit the grand, high-romantic symphonic outburst that one would expect of a composer like Richard Strauss. It has always been regarded as one of his most colourful and tremendous works. And this new Naxos recording has also come in for significant praise in the musical press. Principally the reason is that the orchestra, the Staatskapelle Weimar, under the Pole Antoni Wit, are a not well-known regional band, of the type that abounds in a country as large and cultured as Germany. However, the performance and quality of the playing has rather taken the musical press by surprise. It is a bit like suddenly finding that Leicester, or Dundee (for example) is possessed of an absolutely world rate orchestra. Weimar is no vast cultural metropolis and yet one is has to agree wholeheartedly with one's colleagues in the print media that here the Staatskapelle Weimar turns on a performance of absolutely first rank quality.

The opening of the symphony (Nacht - Night) begins with the darkest of rumblings in the contra bassoon and double basses. Character is established from the absolute outset. This is followed by the brief but wonderful outburst of Strauss's glorious Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) bringing immediate comparisons with Ravel's almost contemporaneous sunrise in Daphnis and Chloe. The work is painted over a vast canvas in 22 continuous movements, each with a descriptive title. Some are mere sketches of an impression, such as the 48-second Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Stream) in which Antoni Wit balances the strings and winds with a beautiful grace and growth before the even shorter (14 seconds) burst of horns and triangle leaps over the edge Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall).

These short sections do not actually appear sectional at all; they are merely handy demarcations to go with the titles appended in the score. The sense of growth as the mountaineering continues is inexorable and, indeed gives the impression of symphonic development that is technically lacking from the tone-poem structure. By the time of Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) Strauss has a lengthy peroration of incomparable magnificence. Here once again the balance of parts is crucially important. It is far too easy to unleash the trombones and horns into a bombastic and overblown summit of Germanic pomposity. Wit avoids this skilfully with the help of really top class horn playing giving grandeur without overpowering the texture. High-class string and wind playing makes for a splendid climax. The real power of the heavy brass is finally unleashed in the storm towards the end of the work. The recording quality is excellent here; powerful and full without any feel of over balancing.

The Alpine Symphony has always been a fabulous orchestral showpiece and, in many respects, it is hard to go wrong with it given a half decent orchestra. This Naxos disc goes well beyond that and provides a reading and a recording that will be hard for the full-price labels to beat. It is probably worth looking for other recent recordings by the Staatskapelle Weimar, if this disc is anything to go by.

© 2006 Peter Wells

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