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Jean-Yves Duperron
Classical Music Sentinel, October 2009

An impressive recording of the Alpine Symphony at a budget price. It goes to show that you do not have to dig deep in your pockets to scale the heights.

This work is scored for a very large orchestra, including multiple brass and woodwind instruments, cow bells, a huge percussion section, a pipe organ, and wind and thunder machines. It is an expansive and dramatic tone-poem depicting a day’s hike through the mountains from sunrise to nightfall. To me, it also represents a man’s journey through life, from birth through to adolescence, maturity, the peak of his life, struggles and conflicts, followed by the slow decline of old age, fond memories of life and ending with death depicted by nightfall.

Strauss divided the piece into 22 aptly named sections, so you always know where you are within the journey, be it the ascent, walking through pastures, reaching the summit, the thunderstorm, the sunset…Reaching the summit is one of the most spectacular and uplifting moments in music, with a majestic theme and perfect orchestration. The conductor and orchestra are in great form here and are supported by yet another top-notch sound recording by Naxos.




Penguin Guide, January 2009

Wit’s highly imaginative performance, with the remarkably fine Weimar Orchestra, is in the class of Kempe, having something in common with the analogue performances of Strauss by the Dresden Staatskapelle, both in the radiance of the orchestra sounds and the warm acoustic of the Weimarhalle (not unlike the Dresden Lukaskirche). Wit’s tempi, too, are often unhurried; his overall performance takes 54 minutes against Welser-Möst’s 45, but it gives the Weimar experience an extra spaciousness, and the panoramic sweep of the string is rapturously beautiful in the opening Night and Sunrise sequences. Yet the forward flow is not consistently measured. It is during the moments of scenic splendor that Wit, always flexible, pulls back gently to evoke the sensuous beauty of what his orchestra is describing: the Entry in to the Forest, the pause on the Alpine pasture and most of all, the thrilling radiance on the summit. The storm on the way down is thundering real, and in the moments before it breaks Wit creates a subtle feeling of apprehension; then, as the descent nears safety, the orchestra mirrors a glorious sunset and evokes a sense of thankfulness for past excitement, and an elegiac contemplation of the natural wonders experienced. In that ‘Auslang’ the organ steals in gently and magically, and night falls in peace and tranquility. Throughout, the Naxos recording is wonderfully vivid and spectacular, and the disc is a well-documented one, too.



Fox
American Record Guide, December 2006

Many of Strauss's symphonic poems are on a grand scale, but from the standpoint of instrumentation, An Alpine Symphony is the grandest. It is really an Eroica-length symphonic poem rather than a symphony, and requires the largest orchestra Strauss ever called for­ about 130 players, among them quadruple woodwinds, hecklephone, 20 French horns (12 off-stage) 4 tenor tubas (2 off-stage), 6 trombones (2 off-stage), organ, wind machine, thunder machine, cowbells, two sets of timpani, and an enlarged string section. Sometimes six of the woodwinds and the two harps are doubled. It is completely programmatic; there is almost no passage in the score that does not have a verbal description of every stage of the ascent and descent of the mountain, and there are 22 of these descriptions! The work is musically uneven in quality; much like Ein Heldenleben, it contains some of Strauss's best and worst music, but it is wonderful to experience it in a good performance. The elation and expansiveness of the score, the bucolic pages and, of course, the raging and howling of the thunderstorm all make it appealing.

This gives a glimpse of what is required to perform An Alpine Symphony and why I admire this work. Sonics are fine, as well as the performance. I am not sure I have heard the venerable Weimar State Orchestra before (it goes back to 1491, and Bach was employed in it from 1708 to 1717). Per this performance at least, they are first class. No doubt the warm and open acoustics of the concert hall helps (presumably the Weimarhalle). At Naxos' budget price, this recording is an outstanding value.



William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, September 2006

Richard Strauss' An Alpine Symphony is an Everest of a work. It towers for nearly an hour. With a mammoth orchestra - extra lashings of woodwind and brass, a percussion section stretching to wind and thunder machines and a quartet of harps - it's hardly staple concert programming in cash-strapped times. Lucky Aucklanders heard it in 2003 when the NZSO and APO joined forces.

Less nudging than Till Eulenspiegel and less philosophically laden than Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it is one of Strauss' best. It deals out triumph (on the summit), terror (the storm), and shimmering delicacy (birds and streams). This is the musical world that Korngold and his ilk would transport to Hollywood in the 1930s, working, alas, with relatively modest studio orchestras. There is nothing modest about Naxos' recording of An Alpine Symphony. After the sheer spirit of adventure that Antoni Wit and the Staatskapelle Weimar inject into the piece, Karajan's classic account is a sedate Alpine tour.

Wit has long been associated with Naxos. His is the baton behind the label's enterprising Penderecki recordings and a line-up of Mahler symphonies.

For Strauss, he leaves his native Poland and works with the Staatskapelle Weimar, which can boast personal associations with Strauss, who was once its second conductor.

Wit takes us to the edge of mysterious cliffs and crevasses and the Weimar players are supremely unfazed. He allows time for Strauss' sumptuous modulations to make their effect, for colours to ring true, and for us to catch quotations - there are enough here to make an argument for Strauss being an early Postmodernist.



Julian Haylock
Classic FM, July 2006

Following years of neglect, Strauss's Alpine Symphony has claimed its rightful place as one of his finest scores. Some find his tactile evocations of waterfalls and grazing cattle a little hard to take, but at the summit Strauss goes into overdrive with music of visionary power and sumptuousness. It's fantastically difficult to play, so hats off to Antoni Wit who directs a performance of no mean virtuosity and elan, unravelling Strauss's complex textural interplay with consummate grip. A little more weight from the upper strings would not have gone amiss, but otherwise only the likes of Kempe and Karajan surpass this.



Gwyn Parry-Jones
MusicWeb International, June 2006

Strauss’s final tone-poem, the Alpine Symphony of 1915, is a huge work in terms of its structural scale and the forces required. It’s also a huge challenge for orchestra and conductor. Strauss makes almost impossible demands on his players, the horn section in particular, for whom this is one of the ultimate peaks of the repertoire – a veritable ‘Matterhorn’, if you like. Indeed, the work calls for a total of some twenty horns, twelve of them in the off-stage band!

The structure of the work is fascinating, as it reflects the actual journey up and down the mountain. The climax is the colossal outburst at the summit, but the cleverest structural device is the descent. For this, Strauss was faced with the danger of anticlimax attendant on the symphonic necessity for a recapitulation of earlier themes. So he contrived a thrilling storm, and, as the party of climbers hurry home amidst the thunder, lightning and torrential rain, the composer is able to review in rapid succession many of the earlier descriptive episodes. Extremely crafty, and highly effective.

The work is spectacular, no doubt about that – and in that quality it reflects its subject, for what in this world is more spectacular than vast mountain scenery? But the work contains many subtle effects too; the arrival on the summit, for example, is at first quiet and awestruck, with a hesitant oboe solo (track 13, 0:15), the full orchestral panoply being saved for a little later when the great vista has ‘sunk in’. The little ‘peeps’ on the oboe in the tense lull before the storm are marvellously evocative (track 18, 0:30 and later), as are the diminishing raindrops after the storm (track 19, 3:12), in a retreat deliberately (I believe) reminiscent of the William Tell Overture. Incidentally, there are many other incidental quotations, or rather allusions, in this work; they include one to Strauss’s own Arabella, one to Wagner’s Siegfried, and even, arguably, one to Mendelssohn’s Oh for the Wings of a Dove. No I’m not telling you – find them yourself!

Nearer the conclusion, the coda is ushered in by a key-change of breathtaking and daring beauty (track 21, 6:06), as the violins reach giddy, pianissimo heights. For those interested in technicalities, it’s a shift from A major to the ‘home’ key of Bb minor, using C#/Bb as the pivot note. Sounds terrible, but the effect is totally magical.

So, do Wit and his Weimar players rise to these musical challenges? The answer is undoubtedly yes, for this is a really very fine account of the work, fit to rank with the best available. Wit takes relatively broad tempi, allowing the multi-coloured orchestration and sumptuous melodies plenty of space to make their effect. But he misses none of the energy of the faster passages, and allows the music to surge forward where necessary in the early stages.

The recording is impressive, particularly in its capturing of the inner, teeming detail of the score. However, the downside is that some of the ‘tuttis’ do not make quite the impact they should. After the long dark Bb minor introduction portraying Night, the sunrise (Track 2) – even more magnificent for me than the one in Also Sprach Zarathustra - should be overwhelming in its brilliance. Wit and his players don’t quite make it, splendid though it is. Something of the same reservations apply to the great outburst on the summit, and the storm which follows, though here, the percussion is undoubtedly impressive - except that the Strauss’s beloved wind machine can’t really be heard. Shame! The Philips engineers for Haitink, for example, capture it much better, and, in part because of that, the Storm is even more exciting there.

But much of the playing, under Wit’s sympathetic guidance, is quite wonderful. The brass are a perfectly balanced ensemble, and the principal trumpet deserves a mention for his negotiation of ‘Dangerous Moments’ (track 12) – perilous stuff indeed, which has embarrassed more than one distinguished player in the past. And those horns? Heroes, all of them, the high, unison passages ringing out with great confidence and massive decibels. The one solitary top concert F, during the Vision passage, can be heard distinctly, if you know where to listen (track 13, just after 4:45).

Of course, this piece has a great deal more to it than virtuoso horn writing, and the other orchestral sections, strings, woodwind and percussion, make superb contributions too. The strings are a really fine body, with rich, homogeneous tone, as well as malleable phrasing when required, and all the woodwind soloists (particularly first oboe and first bassoon) acquit themselves with distinction. And I’ve already mentioned the percussion’s terrific blood and thunder (as opposed to ‘thud and blunder’) in the storm sequence.

A major contender, then, and you can cram the one hundred and forty or so players that this work requires into your hi-fi for just £4.99 – a miracle!



Ivan March
Gramophone, February 2006

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