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Dependable ... but lacking elan
on 17 September 2008
Recorded in 1985, the ever-dependable Bernard Haitink gives us his interpretation of Strauss's majestic climb to the Alpine summit. I love this piece and feel that I know it virtually inside out. Like the tolling of the midnight bell in Strauss's `Also Sprach Zarathustra', there are certain points which act as benchmarks in assessing the success of an interpretation. For his Alpensinfonie, one of the benchmarks is in the very first bars: if the hairs on the back of the neck do not rise at the very opening of the piece with its profound depiction of the blackest night before the dawn, then I know there may be trouble ahead. Alas, Haitink disappoints here.
The sound is nevertheless crisp, perhaps too crisp. There are rough edges, for example when arriving onto the glacier, but then maybe the edges here should be rough! All the right notes are played - and in the right order - and it is a very disciplined performance. But I cannot help remarking how inward-looking the sound feels, and the playing lacks a certain bravado. Haitink may climb to the top and back down again, but there is no élan. The `vision' sequence is anything but visionary; rather, it is perfunctory although this section's fortissimo ending certainly induces terror. One lesson learned from this interpretation is how much of a role the organ plays, frequently appearing where I had not heard it so prominently before.
Each of the stages in the journey is marked on the CD so that instant reference can be made to any particular section.
So, there is little warmth in this journey. To those who contend that there is little warmth on top of mountains, the journey is as much an internal one as external. This is a good performance, but others do it better. At the end of the day, I did not feel that I had ventured very far.