Notes and Editorial Reviews
Edo de Waart makes the most of the climaxes but also injects momentum and drive.
An Alpine Symphony
Edo de Waart, cond; Royal Flemish PO
ROYAL FLEMISH PHILHARMONIC 001 (52:01) Live: Antwerp 5/14–15/2010
An Alpine Symphony
keep coming on a regular basis, moreso now than some of
Richard Strauss’s previously most popular tone poems. Many of them are by relatively little-known or provincial orchestras. It has clearly become one of the principal works seemingly designed for orchestras to demonstrate their stuff, frequently on their own labels. The problem is that most of the A-list Strauss orchestras and conductors have been doing the same thing, so the competition is formidable.
Now, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra joins the
sweepstakes. Edo de Waart conducts and records a lot of Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, so there is a significant body of work to reveal a fairly consistent interpretive stance in this kind of music. De Waart generally employs fairly swift tempos, or at least the appearance of swiftness, because of his forward thrust and no-nonsense approach featuring clear textures and his refusal to luxuriate excessively on the inherent richness of the music. In that sense, he is not unlike Fabio Luisi at the Met, who has also specialized in Strauss and famously (or infamously in James Levine’s house) said that he wanted to remove the traditional Teutonic heaviness from the
by emphasizing faster tempos and lighter instrumental textures.
In this recording, de Waart’s timing is within a minute of Mariss Jansons’s very expansive reading with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCA SACD), but the overall effect is less massive or sluggish because of those clear and comparably light textures. The opening has plenty of atmosphere and the following “Sunrise” projects an adequate sense of grandeur. When the strings enter, you can almost see the sun rising even with the somewhat restrained brass. The tricky following sections go well because of de Waart’s forward motion and refusal to let them get bogged down in minutiae. I worried about the pure power of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic’s brass section (compared to the Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony orchestras) in the climactic sections. De Waart’s surprisingly expansive and nicely shaped tempos make up for any lack of lung power. The gorgeous so-called “Bruch Violin Concerto theme” has rarely sounded more luscious, and the organ is well balanced with the rest of the orchestra. Make no mistake: This is a magnificent climax, even if the brass fanfares lack some of the flamboyant cutting quality that would be ideal.
The “Calm Before the Storm” isn’t just still. It reeks with atmosphere. The timpani during the buildup of the storm are terrifying. The storm itself explodes with perhaps unprecedented violence (the drums!) on a recording of
An Alpine Symphony
. For once, the organ is clearly audible. In fact, the sound of the raging orchestra during the storm is reproduced with an impressive display of power within a naturally open and airy acoustic space. The orchestra then makes a splendid sound in “Sunset” followed by a haunting descent into “Night.”
This recording shocked me. It undoubtedly shows the orchestra in the best possible light, musically and sonically. If I haven’t already made it clear, the organ, for once, plays the critical role that it should in Strauss’s vast instrumental design for
An Alpine Symphony
. My principal quibble about the sound is that it would benefit from more high-end presence. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic does not possess the last word in overwhelming power, virtuosity, or inherent beauty that come easily with those A-list Strauss orchestras, so it is all the more to its credit that this performance rivals any of them. This is a live recording, but the audience doesn’t make a sound until well after the work is completely finished.
FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen
Given the geography of the Low Countries, it is surprising that musicians there have such a natural affinity with Strauss's
Alpine Symphony. This release on the Royal Flemish Philharmonic’s own label comes just a few years after a very similar release from the Concertgebouw on their own label. The work is a fabulous orchestral show-piece, so it is no surprise that these orchestras are using it to show off their skills. In fact the LSO has also recorded the work for their own label in recent years.
The comparison between this reading and that from the Concertgebouw under Jansons is very interesting. Jansons opts throughout for broad, expansive textures. Edo de Waart takes a different approach. He certainly makes the most of the climaxes, but he also injects momentum and drive into the quieter passages. This recording is only a few minutes shorter than Jansons', but de Waart is able to make it seem faster than it actually is. Some atmosphere is lost in the process, but the payoff is a much more coherent, more symphonic Alpine Symphony. Given the vast array of high quality recordings on the market - Karajan's 1981 version usually tops the list - it is just as well that there is something distinctive about this reading. I'll concede that I prefer a more expansive approach, but this one might just be for you if you think Strauss needs saving from his own excesses.
The orchestra are on fine form, and the woodwind and brass solos restore some of the epic quality that escapes de Waart. The balance is good, especially at the summit and in the storm, where the brass and percussion can so easily overwhelm. There are one of two slightly ragged entries where the front and back of the (admittedly huge) orchestra fail to synchronise, but from a technical point of view that is the only discernible problem.
The recording quality is excellent, and bears comparison with the SACD audio on the Concertgebouw version. Even without that extra bit-depth, the clarity and presence of the orchestral sound is close to ideal. The bass in the mix is just right, with enough power to rumble the floor if you turn it up, but retaining a sense of natural balance across the range.
The serial number suggests that this is the first release on the RFP Live label, and if so they are off to a great start. The informative liner give some interesting insights into the influence of Nietzsche on the work. As you'd expect from an own-label release, there is a full orchestra list. There are track listings, but unusually no timings. Perhaps this is to hide the disappointingly short run-time of just 52 minutes. There's space for another half hour of music here, and any of Strauss's shorter tone poems would have been a welcome filler.
-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 by Richard Strauss
Edo De Waart
Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Written: 1911-1915; Germany
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