Conductor: Bernard Haitink
Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra
Year of recording: 2008
SPARS Code: DDD
Hybrid Multichannel SACD
About the Composer: Despite what many filmmakers and television commercial producers would have you believe, the oeuvre of German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) actually does include works other than Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra)!
About the Music: It was some time after I maneuvered along the crags of Rued Langgaard’s first symphony that I learned that a far more prominent composer also devised a symphony highlighting the sensations of the mountaineering experience. While Langgaard’s symphony premiered first in 1913, Strauss’ 1915 Eine Alpensinfonie (Alpine Symphony) diverges considerably from the Danish composer’s work despite the thematic similarities. Langgaard’s hour-long nature romp concludes once the traveler reaches the apogee of the summit; Strauss’ musical peregrination depicts the wayfarer’s ascent and descent of the Alpine hurdle in roughly fifty minutes. Eine Alpensinfonie does not conform to the traditional four-movement symphonic structure, but is comprised of 22 segments that provide elaborate sound-images for the listener. With programme notes in hand, one can easily follow the orchestral action.
I have always appreciated works where there is a clear sense that the composer is labouring to move the music forward; one of my primary grievances with many Baroque compositions is that they squander far too much time gyrating about in the town square as they brandish their plumage for the curious onlookers in the vicinity. Some spectators will be enthralled by the remarkable display, but others will feel that the pirouetting pieces simply aren’t making themselves useful. Eine Alpensinfonie is appealing because Strauss judiciously selects his sound images, allows them to speak, and then quickly escorts listeners to new regions along the rocks. There is no needless repetition, and as a result, tedium never lunges at the climbers’ cleats.
The most striking passages of the symphony, in my view, are those illustrating the sunrise, the entrance into the forest, the perspective from the summit, and the subsequent frenzied descent once an intense lightning barrage scrapes away at the frigid peak. Many portions of the work, not surprisingly, feature resplendent use of very German-sounding brass, but a wind machine and organ are also used to great effect towards the end of the expedition. I love wind machines!
A welcome touch in the liner notes is a complete listing of the LSO players featured in the recording. This addition not only provides credit where credit is certainly due but also emphasizes the instrumental demands of a work of such sweeping magnitude. The lack of an accompanying Strauss recording on the disc shouldn’t prevent you from unclasping your change purse or removing the stopper from your clown-shaped coin bank.