Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, Vier Letzte Lieder - Harteros, Luisi
Sony Classical 88697141972
Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony Op. 64, Four Last Songs
Fabio Luisi (conductor)
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Review by John Miller - October 4, 2007
The Sony-BMG Dresden Strauss series moves on apace. Here we have the Alpine Symphony. Although named as a symphony, it can be viewed as the last, longest and most grandiose of Strauss' long line of orchestral tone poems. It began as a fond recollection of boyhood mountain climbing, and became a depiction of all-powerful Nature in a Nietzschian sense - at one time Strauss gave it the subtitle of "AntiChrist" but later supressed this for his programme story of ascent and descent, presumably for better public understanding. The work certainly has audible connections with Also Sprach Zarathustra, his other Nietzschian work. "Worship for Nature, eternal and magnificent" were Strauss' own words about the Alpine Symphony; perhaps the closest he came to making a religious statement, as musicologist Michael Kennedy observed.
The symphony does not have Strauss' best themes; they are workaday ones in comparison to his greatest inspirations. Indeed, one wit of a critic noted that after all their efforts, the climber's reward is only a popular theme from Bruch's G Minor Violin Concerto! Compensating for this, Strauss gives us an orchestral score of dazzling orchestration, for a huge band comprising 150 players, including an off-stage brass section of twelve horns, two trumpets and two trombones. The percussion section has wind machine, thunder machine, glockenspiel, cymbals, triangle, cowbells, tam-tam and various drums. A Hecklephone, E flat clarinet and four tenor tubas are also called upon, as are quadruple woodwind and brass, two harps, an organ and a large string section. Perhaps significantly for this recording, the work was dedicated to the Royal Orchestra of Dresden.
This colourful score has had many fine Red Book recordings, but so far on SACD there are only two others; Theilemann on DGG (Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, Der Rosenkavalier Suite - Thielemann) and Alber (Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie - Alber). I have not heard the latter, but made brief comparisons with Theilemann's account, where the playing from the VPO is highly committed. However, it was recorded some time ago in 48K/24bit PCM, and while still sounding very well, it sounds a little grainy and sometimes coarse compared with the new Luisi version in pure DSD.
Luisi, as our Alpine guide is both expert in his navigation through the various hazards and solicitous for our need to pause for rest and contemplation or exult at conquering the summit. The pacing is sure, allowing all the detail of this miraculous scoring to register, for example at the opening picture of the mountain shrouded in darkness. Here, Strauss was worried that the wind players holding the long chords would run out of breath and advocated a device which supplied oxygen to the players via a rubber tube attached to a foot-pump! The Dresdeners have no such wind breathing difficulties and the sunrise glow reaches its full slow intensity. In the Waterfall scene, shades of Tchaikovsky's Manfred, the rainbow shines and glistens most attractively and cowbells sound atmospherically across the misty expanse of Alm meadow when we reach the shoulder of the mountain. At the summit, Luisi and the orchestra do not let us down, there is all the majesty and splendour one could want, and no lack of mystery in the Vision, which seems to hark back to Nietzsche. For the final sections Luisi allows the music time to unfold and the tone colours to mix, develop and enrich the experience, as Strauss portrays the enfolding of the mountain again in velvet darkness. This rich and sonorous leave-taking never drags, as the final resolution is being attained with deep contentment.
Overall, I found that this performance of the Alpine had a truly epic approach, making the most of the huge contrasts embodied in the score. Luisi is aided by a 5.1 sound picture which portrays the orchestra arrayed naturally in the flattering Lukaskirche acoustic. As elsewhere in this series, the centre speaker carries mainly ambience, although in the Four Last Songs it carries the solo voice. On first playing I thought the sound a little bass-light, and it also seemed that some of the instrumental contributions were blurred in the ambience. Advancing the volume control cured all this and brought the colours and detail into sharp focus. The off-stage brass and horns sound evocatively from the rear of the church, and the sheer quality of the playing has you on the edge of your seat for the whole journey. If you want deep bass, there is plenty here; the organ (subdued on Thielman's disc) makes itself magnificently felt at the Summit, and the Storm, with organ, near-manic tympani, deep bass drum and thunder machine - and the wind howling above, is just plain terrifying. Beethoven would have loved it!
The Four Last Songs are hardly a make-weight for this disc. At the age of 84, Strauss brought forth some of his greatest masterpieces in these orchestral songs. There are 5 of them; one song, Malven (Mallows) remaining in piano score after his death (it may be heard on Jesse Norman's RBCD of the songs). They represent a culmination of a life-time's composing of lieder. Strauss' wife Pauline was a professional soprano herself and the inspiration for many of his song collections. Ever the astute businessman and provider for his family, Strauss realised that by orchestrating his songs, Pauline could not only go expenses-paid on his concert tours, but he could earn a double fee at the same time.
Sleeve-notes tend to leave the impression that Strauss was planning these last works as a set, but there are no indications of this. His friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey and Hawkes, collected them together and arranged them in the order familiar today, providing a wonderful emotional progression. We owe Roth a debt of gratitude for this.
I confess to an addiction. If I were only allowed one disc on my Desert Island, it would have to be Strauss' Four Last Songs. I have listened and enjoyed many performances, but find there are relatively few truly great ones which have that quality of "innigkeit" - inwardness or poignant intimacy of feeling, with which Strauss imbued these complex and miraculous scores. Christine Brewer on Telarc (Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, Vier Letzte Lieder, Wagner: Prelude & Liebestod - Brewer, Runnicles) sings beautifully, but neither she nor Runnicles are truly deep inside these works. In addition, she has a very large operatic voice, somewhat matronly, with a wide vibrato at times. Her pronunciation and enunciation of German are also not ideal, for example at a crucial moment in the last song she pronounces the long-voweled "Tod" (Death) as "tot" with a short vowel, as in a tot of whiskey. This is as distracting as Kim Borg's fishy bidding of Gerontius' soul to "go with cod" in the Barbirolli set of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius! Most of the time she is singing quite loudly, whereas in the Four Last Song scores Strauss' dynamic markings very rarely rise above forte, although there are crescendi marked. She also sounds very confident about going to death! Finally, the recording disturbed me somewhat; the bulk of the echoey hall acoustic seems to be attached to her voice, as it nearly vanishes when the orchestra are playing alone. This is an initially vocally impressive reading in terms of sheer vocal power, but ultimately does not plumb any depths.
Moving to the singing of Greco-German Anja Harteros, winner of the 1999 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Award, we are in another world. Her voice is much lighter than Brewer, (she is a Mozart character specialist), and sings these songs as true lieder, not at all operatically. Luisi and the orchestra set the scene by deftly playing the myriad details which Strauss uses to illuminate the poetry; high violins for the dripping of rain on the leaves of September's garden; piccolos, flutes and clarinets with a swelling chord every time "stars" or "night" is mentioned (Beim Schlafengehen), soft, ripe horn melodies (a tribute to Strauss Senior, a horn player), the solo violin as the soaring soul and many, many other aural jewels. The Hesse and Eichendorf poems are about death, and Strauss knew that he and Pauline were not far from theirs; he was also deeply distressed by the chaos at the end of the War and thus the passing of all the worlds that he knew, musical, economic and social. This is the source of the innigkeit which the Dresden players, Luisi and Harteros all find and express in this marvellous reading. The soloist's effective tone-painting of the text is immediately apparent, reminding me of the young Schwarzkopf, and she also knows that these songs often start quietly on a half-tone at an upbeat, as if we had come unknowingly on someone's innermost train of thought - a device Strauss used often. Listen to how she inflects the phrase "Hand in Hand" in Abendrot, a frisson-making moment. In this last of the group she reveals much human frailty, awed and afraid at the realisation that the glorious, smouldering sunset she is beholding is, perhaps, Death itself. The musicians in the orchestra follow her lead; there are so many felicitous details of inflecting solos to give them meaning. Quite simply, this version of Vier Letzte Lieder unfailingly moves me to tears as few others do. And Luisi and the Dresdeners understand the full meaning of stillness as they bring the song to conclusion under the trills of nightingale flutes. We are left with the picture of Richard and Pauline Strauss standing hand in hand in the growing dusk.
Copyright © 2007 John Miller and HRAudio.net
Review by Graham Williams - November 2, 2007
My initial reaction to this, the second issue of Sony/BMG’s new Strauss series, was one of disappointment with the quality of the recording. I judged the sound to be opaque and lacking both in richness and detail. However, subsequent playings at a MUCH higher volume setting has to a large extent altered this view. It is still true that the organ pedal notes used at various points in the score are weak, so much so that I checked to see if I had inadvertently switched off my sub, and in general there is a lack of weight to the sound, particularly in the bass.
Fabio Luisi and the Dresden Statskapelle’s essentially lyrical and fairly leisurely performance of the Alpine Symphony is certainly wonderfully played and all sections of the orchestra, particularly the brass and strings, cover themselves in glory. Luisi brings Italianate warmth to such passages as ‘Wanderung neben der Bach’ (Trk.4) and in the ‘Ausklang’ (Trk.19) the string melody over a soft cushion of horns that Strauss marked to be played ‘in soft ecstasy’ has never sounded more ravishing.
In ‘Der Anstieg’ (Trk.3) the offstage brass makes a thrilling sound thanks to the use of the rear surrounds, something that was lacking in Christian Thielemann’s live recording with the Vienna PO, while the distant cow bells in ‘Auf der Alm’ are treated similar fashion. These are two of the high points in this recording for listeners in multi-channel though, in the final analysis, it must be admitted that the famed acoustic of the Lukaskirche, Dresden, has not been particularly well caught.
What helps to redeem this SACD is the beautiful performance of the Four Last Songs by Anje Harteros. Since winning the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World eight years ago she has been in demand in opera houses all over Europe and the United States and it is easy to see why. She has a pure creamy soprano, ideally suited to Strauss and in this work her radiant singing, clear diction and Luisi’s fine accompaniment places it among the finest recent performances available on disc. The sound picture places her, as so often in recordings of these songs, well in front of the orchestra and though her attractive voice has been well captured by the engineers, the microphones have also picked up her intakes of breath at the end of phrases, but not to an annoying degree.
In short then this SACD is something of a curate’s egg and I hope that if anyone from the Sony/BMG recording team reads this they will take steps to improve their techniques before the next issue (Aus Italien and Don Juan?) in this valuable series is taped.
Copyright © 2007 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net