, June 2011
Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie was his last symphonic poem and calls for the biggest orchestra of all the poems; there are over 120 players. The germ of the work dates from 1878 when the then fourteen year old Strauss set off with a party to climb the Heimgarten. They managed to get lost and drenched in a thunderstorm before taking shelter in a peasant’s hut. Eine Alpensinfonie, completed some thirty-seven years later, depicts many of the episodes from the original expedition, and adds many more to describe the course of a day exploring the Bavarian Alps.
Although Strauss called the work a ‘symphony’, there is no trace of the traditional four movement symphonic structure. Instead there is a total of twenty-one episodes, each with its descriptive title. An early British performance of this work enlisted E. J. Moeran to sit among the orchestra, holding up a numbered card to correspond with the section of the score currently being played. Strauss’s writing and orchestration do not need this kind of commentary, however, being more than sufficiently vivid to depict the climb up and down the mountain unaided. Anyone who enjoys Hollywood movie scores should relish this work; this is a Romantic piece on a grand scale, and a superb piece of orchestration.
The current recording is a re-issue from 1985. I thought that Haitink might be a bit strait-laced to give a really enjoyable performance but as it turned out I need not have had any fears. Haitink’s view is certainly a serious one, avoiding the work’s more Technicolour excesses. His interpretation never wallows in the moment at the expense of the larger structure; each episode fits seamlessly into the whole. One is just swept along in the unfolding drama.
The Concertgebouw plays magnificently. It is impossible to mention all the felicities, but the following is a selection. The brass is held back in the first Night episode to sound an ominous note. The cellos and basses are superb in The Ascent, and the violins supply a delicate tracery in Entry into the Wood. The woodwinds supply Mahlerian echoes in On the Alpine Pasture. The trumpets and trombones blare out in Dangerous Moments, and the cor anglais solo in On the Summit is expressive. Vision has echoes of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. The wind machine whistles spookily in Thunder and Tempest, Descent, and the brass is superb. Sunset is beautifully shaped and sustained, and the hushed opening returns in the second Night episode.