July 13, 2006


Strauss: An Alpine Symphony. Antoni Wit conducting Staatskapelle Weimar. Naxos. $8.99.

     With a strong sense of self-knowledge and a hint of self-deprecating humor, Richard Strauss once said that he might not be a first-rate composer, but at least he was a first-rate second-rate composer.  Some of his operas might belie such a modest assessment, but works such as An Alpine Symphony tend to confirm it.

     This is a long work – more than 50 minutes – and is a symphony only by a very large stretch of the imagination. It is better described (and heard) as a tone poem, which makes it Strauss’ final work in that form, completed in 1915.  Beginning and ending with sections called “Night,” it is the musical story of a day spent climbing up and then down an Alp, experiencing the wonders of both realistic nature and the sort of capital-N Nature through which Nietzsche believed it was possible for humans to achieve liberation.

     Some of the tone painting is effective, but some is quite mundane (waterfall sounds, cowbells to symbolize pastures).  There is short shrift given to the dangers inherent in mountain climbing: only two brief sections, lasting a total of three minutes, hint at physical danger, although there is a rather overdone thunderstorm toward the end as well (during which the imagined climbers descend the mountain).

     When played to the hilt, An Alpine Symphony, with its huge orchestra and periodic reminiscences of other Strauss tone poems, can be striking, if scarcely profound.  The Staatskapelle Weimar plays the music very well indeed, but Antoni Wit holds the work a bit too firmly in check for it to be fully effective.  That thunderstorm, for instance, is lacking in drama, seeming almost hesitant – scarcely what Strauss intended for a movement including, among many other things, wind and thunder machines.

     The broad phrases and string-heavy passages are the best here, including “Entry into the Wood” and (cowbells aside) “On the Alpine Pasture.”  The work’s longest section, “Final Sounds,” also has grandeur and sweep in this performance.

     As a whole, though, Wit seems a touch apologetic about this overblown piece.  The “On the Summit” section, for example, bursts into tremendous sound, but subsides so quickly and thoroughly that Wit seems glad to have gotten through it, to be able to move into warmer and more congenial sonic regions.

     There is no question that Strauss is prone to bloat in works such as this (which lasts three times as long as, for example, the much earlier “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”).  A conductor who revels in the composer’s excesses can make this an exciting, if superficial, musical experience.  But Wit never quite lets go – with the result that this Alp seems more like a large hill.

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