Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (SACD review)

Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra. LSO Live SACD LS00689.

During the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, an era I like to think of as a golden age of hi-fi and music before the advent of computers, home theaters, iPods, iPads, and earbuds, each of the major record labels had its own stars: DG had Herbert von Karajan, Decca had Sir Georg Solti, EMI had Otto Klemperer and later Andre Previn, and Philips had Bernard Haitink. Haitink's Philips recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra remain among my favorites, not only because of the wonderful sound Philips provided but because Haitink's interpretations wear so well. He has always let the music speak for itself, without, for instance, the Karajan glamor or the Solti theatrics. It was a pleasure to listen to his Philips Concertgebouw recording of An Alpine Symphony a while back, re-released by Newton Classics. Now comes this newer recording of the Alpine with the London Symphony Orchestra on the orchestra's own "LSO Live" label.

It wasn't long after German conductor and composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) premiered his Alpine Symphony in 1915 that critics began reproaching it as frivolous cotton-candy: picture-postcard music unworthy of the great man's talents. That always seemed an unfair assessment. It seemed that people couldn't help comparing the newer work to Strauss's previous tone poems like Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), which combined a degree of philosophical insight with their purely pictorial portraits. These critics felt the Alpine Symphony didn't live up to the other works because it merely told a story. I wonder if they thought of lodging the same complaint against Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

Interestingly, An Alpine Symphony started out as something else entirely and sort of evolved into what it finally became. Early on, Strauss wrote "I will call my Alpine Symphony the Antichrist, because in it there is moral purification by means of one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of glorious, eternal nature." Later, he said it was simply the musical reflection of a childhood mountain-climbing expedition. Whatever, whether you consider the Alpine Symphony in a literal or metaphorical sense is beside the point; just enjoying it is the goal. It wasn't until the latter part of the twentieth century that the Alpine Symphony got its proper due as more conductors took up the baton in its defense, and today we take the work for granted a basic-repertoire item.

Of course, the Alpine Symphony is not really a symphony at all, at least not a symphony in the conventional sense. It's a series of twenty-two interconnected passages, or movements, that tell the story of an alpine climb, with chapter titles conveying the composer's intentions, things like "Night," "Sunrise," "The Ascent," "Entry into the Forest," "Wandering by the Brook," "By the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "An Alpine Pasture," "On the Glacier," "Dangerous Moments," "On the Summit," "Calm Before the Storm," "Thunderstorm," "Sunset," and a return to "Night." Strauss describes each of these events in music, and although there may be a few too many climaxes along the way, it is all quite graphic and imposing. Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, over 120 players, and the piece is vast in scope, elaborate, often majestic, and not a little bombastic.

Haitink's interpretation has not changed all that much since his 1985 recording. It still has weight, authority, and grandeur, yet this time, if anything, he adds more contemplation and continuity. He makes it more than just pictorial, never glamorizing the work or sentimentalizing it. Haitink again plays the score straightforwardly and lets the music take care of itself. Moreover, the conductor never approaches the work as a series of disconnected scenes but as a unified, structural whole. As a result, he brings each scene vividly to life and allows the music to shine majestically. This is another excellent performance of a sometimes underestimated work.

More specifically, Haitink starts with a very atmospheric opening and builds it to a resplendent "Sunrise." As usual with Haitink, there is no sensationalizing of the music, the conductor presenting it in a thoughtful, yet dramatic, fashion. Nevertheless, as the program unfolded, I found myself beginning to wish Haitink was emphasizing the contrasts a bit more because after about ten or fifteen minutes I thought it was beginning to sound a little static. I was wrong. As the work progresses, the performance rather grows on you in its unpretentious, unassuming, contemplative way. By the time it's finished, you realize this has been a more cerebral interpretation than most, and one that, like most of Haitink's work, should wear well over time.

Would I prefer listening to this new Haitink recording over any of my other favorites? No, I'd not prefer it, but I'd set it alongside the likes of Kempe (EMI), Previn (Telarc), Blomstedt (Decca), Thielemann (DG), or Haitink (Philips or Newton Classics) himself.

Recorded live in concert at the Barbican, London, in June of 2008, the SACD includes a two-channel stereo track and a 5.1 multichannel mix. In the stereo mode that I played back on a Sony SACD machine, the sound was quite pleasing, big and full, if slightly one-dimensional. I'm sure the surround version, had I been able to hear it, would have improved this condition, but my main listening system is two-channel only. In any case, a wide left-to-right stereo spread, good dynamics, and a strong impact help to make up for any minor lack of depth. The overall sonic impression is one of extreme smoothness, sometimes a little soft perhaps but very easy on the ear, a big sound picture to match the big musical picture Strauss paints.

Even though the miking doesn't appear to be excessively close, there is practically no noise from the audience, no coughing, wheezing, or shuffling of feet. Just as important, the recording engineers wisely chose to forgo any final applause, which would have marred the orchestra's final quiet notes fading into nightfall.


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