The strange case of Christian Thielemann is accentuated in his conducting of a composer close to his heart, Richard Strauss. This, after all, is a man who can make Elektra sound like the composer's ideal of 'fairy music by Mendelssohn' on the one hand, and Rosenkavalier like suet pudding on the other, as the grisly pacing of the trio within the music-minus-three context of the Suite on this disc attests. Never mind the merits of this concert-hall compromise here; it makes a generous sweet to follow the main course of the Alpine Symphony in an extraordinary if not always lovable Vienna performance. Taking a good seven minutes longer to get up the mountain and back down than Strauss the conductor in his 1941 recording, Thielemann doesn't always linger where you might expect - namely on the summit or in the sunset epilogue, which are not among the finest things in this interpretation. His studied approach enlightens the interplay between solo and collective strings before the approach to a spectacularly cascading waterfall, the ingenuity of the muted brass-writing as our mountaineers find themselves 'lost in thicket and undergrowth', and above all in the agonising suspense before a brutal storm. Unfortunately the balances aren't always happy within the performance itself - witness the smothering of first-trombone contours in the mountain theme at the start - or in the artificial recording, which as often with this thickly scored work assaults the listener mercilessly. Philips engineers got it right for Ozawa and the orchestra back in 1996, a performance far handsomer to live with, if missing some of the knife-edge details in which Thielemann delights.
© BBC Music Magazine 2001
CD W/Wiener Philharmoniker, Christian Thielemann