on 18 September 2012
Anyone who has experienced the sun rising over the Bavarian Alps will realise how perfectly and atmospherically Strauss has captured in his music this haunting and majestic display of nature. Despite its title, and the often symphonic treatment of its themes, this is a tone-poem, its programme depicting a youthful hiking expedition by Strauss and his friends to climb one of the alpine peaks. The timetable of the work traces the day's course from the hush before dawn to the fall of night 55 minutes later. Standing above the many musical images conjured up by the plentiful sectional subtitles (22 in all) is what Strauss himself called "the worship of nature, eternal and magnificent."
Strauss was proud of his achievement and considered Eine Alpensinfonie a fine work in which his command of the orchestra and skills in orchestration had reached a full flowering. While the music is Strauss to the core, there are nods here and there in the direction of Mahler and that composer's sound world. Mahler-like too is the ease with which Strauss contrasts the vast orchestral palette at his disposal in the huge forces on the platform with numerous chamber-like ensembles, many featuring delightful wind solos.
In this performance several high points stand out: `Sonnenaufgang' (Sunrise) in which one of the work's main themes is first heard, 'Auf blumigen Wiesen' (On Flowering Meadows) and `Auf der Alm' (On the Alpine Pasture) where oboe and shimmering strings seem to connect to an "other world" redolent of Mahler, `Auf dem Gipfel` (On the Summit) where the Sunrise theme thunders out majestically in the full orchestra to greet the walkers' arrival on the peak. Their descent is made to the accompaniment of one of the most magnificent storms in music. This gives way to an extraordinarily evocative elegy `Ausklang' (Final Sounds) before `Nacht' (Night) returns, leaving the listener with the feeling that the music has not stopped but simply reconnected with what Tchaikovsky (I think) spoke of as "the deep bass note at the earth's core."
The Staatskapelle Weimar is in top form under Antoni Wit. It has an impressive pedigree: Franz Liszt brought it fame in the years 1848-61 while, as a 25-year old, Strauss himself began a 5-year period in Weimar as Second Conductor in 1889. The entire orchestra plays superbly, with the horns outstanding. The weight and mass of horns, tubas, trumpets, trombones and bassoons are impressive when called upon. String tone is admirable and the woodwind excels, while organ and timpani deliver their important roles well.
For the recording engineers too this disc is a triumph. Strauss's score presents a challenging sonic spectrum but the sound is full and spacious, capturing faithfully the wonderful invention of the composer. Full marks to all concerned, not forgetting Naxos which brings this superb disc to the music loving public at such a modest price.
on 10 April 2011
The Alpine Symphony is most definitely one of my favorite pieces of music ever written, so when I listen to a performance of the masterpiece, I can not help but be harsh in my criticisms. From the recordings I have heard, none had impressed me enough to reccommend it, there was always something that I would pick out and criticise. And those recordings included the popular Solti recording, and the far too quickly paced Franz Welser-Möst recording.
But when I sat down to listen to Antoni Wit's recording, I was surprised that I could not find much to criticise at all!
I was amazed to find a recording that actually followed pretty much all the dynamics Strauss marked down in the score. All sforzandos were played, and with so much power. And the dynamic balance between the orchestra was excellently handled by Wit, with the many layers in Strauss' scoring being heard. Wit's tempo is very well-judged, and it always does work, it may sometimes seem a tad slow compared to some other performance (especially the Welser-Most!) but it is never dragging and always expressing the music to the full. The Staastkapelle Weimar are certainly a wonderful orchestra with very warm, expressive playing throughout the whole piece. Only two or three times where I heard a mistake, an example would be when the horn fluffs the top Eb near the beggining of "Ausklang" or when it feels like the strings "gliss" a little too early on the second to last note of the last movement. But these are criticisms that could be said of so many recordings anyway, as this is a very challenging score to play and not many orchestras get it completely right.
But the orchestra produce a wonderful sound and really do justice to Strauss' masterful orchestration with many details emphasised, for example the wind fluttertongue and string trills are very evident in "Auf der Alm". The orchestra is also very adaptable and portray the different moods Strauss is showing very well. Whether it is the mysterious opening "Nacht", the passion in "Sonnenaufgang", the longing and struggle in "Vision", the sensitive "Elegy", the sinister "Stille vor dem Sturm", the excitment of "Gewitter und Sturm" or the reminiscent "Ausklang".
The sound quality is very good and really allows the wonderful sounds the orchestra are creating to come through. However, at times the lower brass can seem a little harsh and overpowering, but it is normally fine. Apart from that, the sounds quality is excellent.
There are so many points of excellence in this recording which could easily make this a definite performance. I would just like to name a few points that impressed me in particular: the very beggining with the mysterious atmosphere captured perfectly with dark, haunting bassoons and lower brass. The build up to "Am Wasserful" made even more exciting by obeying Strauss' dynamics. All the textures being brought out in "Auf der Alm", the extremely passionate climaxes in "Gefahrvolle Augenblicke" and the extra sinister atmosphere Wit builds in "Stille vor dem Sturm". And not forgetting the beautiful playing in "Ausklang".
Even though I still have a fair few recordings of this masterpiece to listen to, I can tell that this recording is going to be extremely hard to beat. I would extremely look forward to any other recordings Wit and his orchestra made of Richard Strauss, let that be a hint to Naxos as I am sure many other people, after hearing this, would feel the same way.
Revisiting this recording and comparing it with several others has made me realise that I had previously slightly over-praised it elsewhere, perhaps swayed by the fact that reviewers both on Amazon and in other forums have expressed understandable enthusiasm that such a good performance may be found on a budget label.
Nonetheless, they have slightly exaggerated its merits. The distinguished Staatskapelle Weimar orchestra cannot really compare with the Berlin Philharmonic (Karajan, 1980) or the Vienna Philharmonic (Thielemann, live 2000) for opulence, virtuosity and sheen. It is also true that, able though he is, Wit does not generate the same excitement or exercise the same masterful control over the shape of music which can easily sprawl and become intermittently lethargic unless either tension or a sense of mystery are maintained. This is highly episodic, programme music in which the sections need to be welded together to avoid seeming fractured and there are times in Wit's account when the momentum sags. He takes only three minutes or so overall longer than his main competitors but of course that crude measurement doesn't tell you much beyond suggesting greater leisureliness; in fact Karajan and co are often both faster and slower at key points and it is Wit's steadiness which is the problem.
There is in fact another really dark horse rival in the inexplicably superb recording by Frank Shipway with the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra on the BIS label; see my rave review. Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (Symphonische Fantasie) (São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Frank Shipway) (BIS: BIS1950) Ultimately, Shipway, Karajan and Thielemann all offer superior recordings but I doubt whether many purchasers will experience disappointment with this Naxos issue - unless they make direct comparisons with those greater versions.
This is one of those recordings that is just a blessing to own. Being a Strauss fan but not a fully paid -up music critic I can still feel confident enough in my own judgment to say that this disc scores very highly on just about every level, except maybe that of playing time.The performance of this stunning work is first rate. You feel that you are that Alpine traveler making your way from the foothills to the top before descending through the storm to home.This music demands and rewards involvement especially when played with such verve,warmth and discipline as Wit and his orchestra manage here.The recording itself is vivid, warm and detailed. Simply put, this disc sounds great.
Some might say that there are 'better' versions available elsewhere. Perhaps so, but there should always be room for alternative readings of great works in a collection,surely? Especially if they are as good as this and at bargain price!
on 29 January 2015
I've listened to a few Alpines recently and enjoyed many of them, Kempe, Blomstedt, Haitink, Zinman etc (but not Karajan's) but as in all romantic music, interpretations and recordings are a subjective matter, as are the opinions of listeners. It really would be a bit churlish to criticise this wonderful recording, so well recorded and superbly paced (at a comfortable 54 minutes, no filler really needed), but I feel I should comment on one or two elements, good and not so good.
This recording is rightly prized for its wide open sound, one of Naxo's best ever recordings. (I always think that Naxos is the Ryanair of recording companies, often sniffed at just for being cheap. I've enjoyed my journeys with Naxos and even with the Irish airline; in short, whatever their faults, they both do their jobs extremely well for the most part and we should be grateful to both companies for enhancing our lives). Some have complained that the recording has poor sound - I wonder what on earth sound the system is that they're listening to.
The symphony starts quietly but soon builds with strength, sweeping you up confidently and surely. In every section of the orchestra the players show great commitment to the music and play with obvious affection, making the music their own. The journey to the summit is colourful and occasionally tender, as in the little string quartet episode, when the great orchestra becomes still for a moment of quiet reflection.
The cowbells on the Alpine Pasture movement are unfortunately reticent and more reminiscent of the sound of a blacksmith's workshop somewhere in the distance. I'd hoped for real alpine cowbells with their discordant brassy clanking and clacking, which is surely the sound Strauss intended, not some metallic spare parts in a corner.
Gosh, those strong horns at the beginning of the Summit passage, followed by those fabulous swooping string glissandi! How unrushed this whole passage is (unlike Welser-Most for instance who astonishingly passes the glissandi by in a quick and perfunctory way - he's far too hasty in his rush to the top. What's the hurry?).
The Weimar orchestra's premonition of thunder is scary, just the right perspective and the build-up thrilling; and the storm is by no means over the top.
The final passages of 'Sonnenuntergang', 'Ausklang' and 'Nacht' are beautifully played and paced, especiallly by the woodwinds - enough to bring me to tears. Wit's fine gradations of sound, subtle pacing and tiny intuitive hesitations are a joy.
Dare I really say that the one thing I did miss in 'Nacht' was the final, very important, string glissando where it sighs slowly away into blackness? In too many recordings this is muted and rather hard to hear, and the thrilling magic of that inky blackness descending is rather missed - in this recording the winds, though superbly played, are too high up in the mix and cover the sound of the strings final dark descent. Is it a conductor's or an engineer's misjudgement of balance? Whichever the case, it does not approach Haitink's breathtaking glissando, strong in the mix, that drops you down like a lift arriving in the basement, with a stomach flutter! And a little more studio ambience after the finish for five or ten seconds would not have gone amiss - sudden digital silence is so empty and spoils . Naxos have sometimes put a digital silence between movemnts and occasionally too quickly at the end of cds. Digital emptiness can spoil the listening experience.
Yes, these are minor criticisms, but they are tiny compared with the overall vision Wit has of this piece and the quality he gets from the orchestra, not ot mention Naxos's excellent recording. Antoni Wit is apparently one of the most recorded conductors in the world. If there's one recording of his that shows his fine judgement and understanding of a composer's wishes, it must be this one. I shall return to this cd often, I'm sure.
on 28 May 2011
In a field which is dominated by stately, majestic recordings of the Alpine Symphony, this interpretation comes as a somewhat purifying experience, being, in terms of pacing and articulation, much closer to Strauss' own recording of the work (and also slightly similar to Solti's reading - but without the fierceness). If you like your Strauss to be fleet-footed, with plenty of fresh bite to the sound and an impressive transparency, then you'll probably love this recording.
Welser-Most does away with the cheap bombast that often accompanies this piece and gets the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester to play with a refreshing honesty and with a sense of purpose and forward momentum that I found very impressive. Whereas Solti's interpretation sounds hard-driven and one-dimensional, Welser-Most manages to keep up a similar brisk pace but instead creates a wonderful cinematic experience - achieved through a less heavy-handed approach. Despite the lighter touch, there is still plenty of power at the summit and storm. All the effects that Strauss asks for are there and what's more you can actually hear all the musical lines that are swirling around the orchestra thanks to a more transparent sound.
The young players are superb - one wouldn't even realise that this is essentially a youth orchestra (albeit one of the finest in the world). This also has the benefit of being a live recording from Vienna's Musikverein and the famous acoustic of this hall is captured to great effect.
So, in conclusion, if you're looking for a recording that will complement those by Karajan, Haitink or Antoni Wit's very expansive account for Naxos, then go no further. This is a very competitive recording that stands out for its individuality of approach and sureness of touch. It is also executed without any disconcerting mannerisms that have beset other "unconventional" readings (Thielemann springs to mind here! - just my personal opinion).
on 16 July 2013
'An Alpine Symphony' was Richard Strauss's last tone-poem, inspired by a mountaineering expedition in his boyhood and incorporating Nietzsche's idea of liberation through nature. It consists of 22 separate musical interludes, starting with night, and then sunrise, after which each successive section represents a stage in the ascent of the mountain. The listener is taken on a truly awe-inspiring journey, entering a mysterious wood, strolling by a stream, discovering flowering meadows and alpine pastures and experiencing moments of danger before reaching the summit in a blaze of glory and euphoria. And more is to follow for during the descent there is a thunderstorm to contend with! This is music in all its guises; sombre, lyrical, enigmatic,ecstatic, wistful, menacing and calm. An epic journey, indeed! The symphony is scored for a very large orchestra, including a huge percussion section, multiple woodwind and brass and even thunder machines, so if you like your music fully orchestrated and you like programme music, then this is a CD not to miss! Antoni Wit and the Staatskapelle Weimar more than do justice to this magnificent score on what is a very reasonably priced CD, therefore I have no hesitation in recommending it most highly and giving it a 5-star rating. Buy this, and prepare to be blown away!
This work has been a favourite demonstration piece for record companies and fine orchestras over the years. It offers a great range of instrumental timbres and dynamics from very quiet to very loud and is the perfect composition to display the recording engineer's art, the players and the home reproduction equipment. It also happens to be a rewarding piece of music to enjoy simply as programme music.
Being the type of music that it is, there is a need for a fine orchestra and good modern sound. On the latter basis, older recordings now seem to be lacking in range and sparkle. Some are too hard driven and seem to forget that this is primarily music. Solti, for example, falls into this category and the recorded sound is too closely balanced for proper expansion. There are two other fine performances still retained in my collection. One is the re-mastered and much improved digital performance by Karajan the the BPO. The other is Thielemann's performance with the VPO. Both of these are superb but quite different to Witt in concept.
In general terms it would be possible to describe Karajan's concept as focussing on the excitement and thrill of the climb, the view at the summit and the storm during the descent. In this he is fully supported by the orchestra and the engineers. Thielemann takes a broader view overall. This could be described as more of a majestic concept. Once again there is total support from the orchestra and engineers.
Witt is really very different to either of those two. His concept seems to be altogether a rounder experience, an emphasis on the expansiveness of the score and of the imagery. The tonal palette he draws from his fine orchestra is a warmer mix of sounds. So the epic splendour of the climb is portrayed rather than the excitement of physical effort. The view at the top is one of panoramic expansion and the storm is more of an obstacle to be overcome rather than a challenge to survival. To match this view, the engineers have created a sound-scape that is slightly less forward than those provided for Karajan or Thielemann. This is a very satisfying musical and aural experience.
In my view there is a place for all three of these views that I feel to be complementary options rather than competitive options.
Witt's version also has the great additional advantage of being a bargain priced issue.
I would suggest that collectors would probably wish to own more than one version of this work and that this recording by Witt on Naxos would be very much a worthwhile consideration for being one of those. It would also be a strong candidate for consideration as an 'only' purchase.
I wouldn't venture to guess how many recordings of Strauss's 'Alpine Symphony' there have been, going all the way back to Strauss himself conducting it. But the competition is fierce. The present recording with Antoni Wit conducting the Staatskapelle Weimar is not bad, but it's also not among the best. First, there is the matter of the sound. The recording level is very low and you'll have to crank up your volume to hear everything. Not in itself a serious problem, but I do think it affects the overall depth of sound. Second, though, and much more important, there is rather a mishmash when we get to the really loud and complicated passages, such as 'Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg' ('Thunder and Storm, Descent'). Although the individual sections of the Weimar orchestra are good, somehow they don't always mesh very well. The most appealing sections of the performance are those with relatively thin textures and slower tempi, such as 'Auf der Alm' ('On the Alpine Pastures'). Wit does a reasonably creditable job but he does tend to linger a bit more than I'd prefer. Finally, the symphony is the only work on the CD, adding up to a mere 54 minutes. Even at budget price, this is not much of a bargain.
My own current favorites for the Alpine Symphony are the recent recording by Franz Welser-Möst and the remarkable Mahler Jugendorchester and the performance by David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle. I believe the latter is available singly but I have it in the extraordinary box of most of Strauss's orchestral music, a sensational value. And then there is the wonderful long-time favorite of many, the performance by Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden Staatskapelle. I also like, a pleasant surprise to me, the version with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Czech Philharmonic.
So, as the title says, you can do better.
on 21 November 2015
There are times when the best recordings come, not from the sheen and precision of the BPO or VPO or CSO or NYPO or LSO or.... God knows there are enough of them. Sometimes gems crop up because the (lesser) orchestra, on the day, immolated themselves, transcended themselves... and GOT TO THE HEART OF THE THING. There is nobody, I hope, who would suggest that the BPO or VPO etc etc etc always do this, or that it is impossible for lesser ensembles to do it.
Now ... my goodness.... taken on its own terms this is one hell of a recording. It positively growls! The colours in the brass are SO dark, the solo playing is SO beautiful, the tempos (at the summit and in the epilogue) are SO broad, the tension maintained (whether this is the BPO or not) is SO great......
Is it perfect ... no it is not ... will I be digging it out for years to come in preference to many "glossier" recordings ... yes I will.
YES I WILL.
Here are some other examples of minnows vanquishing the mighty ...Mahler/Symphony No.5 ...Bruckner: Symphony 4 ... Symphony No. 10 (Rattle, Bournemouth So)