Strauss: Alpine Symphony (SACD)

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Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada

With its epic sweep and grandeur and compelling drama, there has rarely been such a spine-tingling and vivid depiction of nature as found in Richard Strauss’s magnificent tone poem, An Alpine Symphony. Calling for gargantuan orchestral forces, this lavishly illustrated journey is Strauss’s crowning orchestral achievement. Using a vast musical canvas packed with vivid and exquisite details, it’s a bold, optimistic and passionate work, unleashing ecstatic blazes of orchestral colour alongside moments of awestruck contemplation in a continuous narrative of 22 sections, which Strauss threads together with his usual mastery and aplomb.

The work is performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by podium sensation Andrés Orozco-Estrada. It marks their fourth release in a critically acclaimed series for PENTATONE. Their performance of Strauss’s Salome earned Gramophone magazine’s Editor’s Choice (January 2018). Gramophone also praised their Ein Heldenleben “...the playing has an easy virtuosity … the love music swells and swoons magnificently”. And for their first recording, the Stravinsky ballets The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, Gramophone lauded their ability “to unearth an astonishing amount of detail at relatively spacious tempi” and “PENTATONE’s awesomely precise recording”.

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Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) (1915)

1. Nacht (Night)
2. Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise)
3. Der Anstieg (The Ascent)
4. Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Forest) 
5. Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Brook) 
6. Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall)
7. Erscheinung (Apparition) 
8. Auf blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows) 
9. Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture)
10. Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path)
11. Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier) 
12. Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments)
13. Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) 
14. Vision (Vision) 
15. Nebel steigen auf (Mists Rise) 
16. Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich 0. 52 (The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured)
17. Elegie (Elegy) 
18. Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm Before the Storm) 
19. Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg 3. 58 (Thunder and Tempest, Descent)
20. Sonnenuntergang (Sunset) 
21. Ausklang (Quiet Settles) 
22. Nacht (Night)

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Beautiful playing in Strauss's big pastoral symphony.



An Alpine Symphony (1915) is the last and the longest of Richard Strauss' orchestral tone poems. Using an enormous orchestra of 125 players, it depicts an 11-hour daylong hike in the Bavarian Alps, beginning at dawn and continuing until sunset. The various sections are specifically named, including Sunrise, The Ascent, Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path, On the Glacier, On the Summit, Calm Before the Storm, Thunder and Tempest... and so on. Yet despite this pictorial program, the piece is also entitled "Symphony" and needs to hang together as a whole. This is a task for Strauss and the conductor to achieve: Strauss has done his part, but the conductor must concentrate on structural as well as orchestral balance.

There have been many fine recordings of the Alpine Symphony: its panoramic scope appeals to orchestras and audiences, and recording engineers relish the sonic challenges it presents. One famous version is that of the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan: the first orchestral recording ever released on CD. Karajan always concentrated on beauty and polish of orchestral sound and his performance is indeed superb, but it veers close to becoming a series of carefully crafted musical highlights ranging from gorgeous to spectacular. Lesser performances in that vein suggest the calculated manipulation of mid-20th Century film scores.

This impressive new recording from the Frankfurt RSO under their Columbian, Vienna-based conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada avoids trivialising the music, presenting it with true symphonic breadth. Orozco-Estrada finds the necessary grandeur for On the Summit, the foreboding of Calm Before the Storm, and the savagery of the storm itself, but it is in the gentler sections I feel he really scores. The sections titled Wandering By the Brook, On the Alpine Pasture, and the penultimate Quiet Settles convey Strauss's genuine sense of well-being and love of nature (thanks to exquisite work from the Frankfurt woodwind players). Here the conductor makes it clear this is Strauss's own Pastoral Symphony.

As usual with Pentatone, the sound is exceptionally true. In sum, a beautiful and coherent performance of this giant tone painting.