R. STRAUSS: Alpine Symphony Op. 64; Macbeth, Symphonic poem Op. 23 – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ Marek Janowski – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 339, 69:13 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The Alpine Symphony was the composer’s last symphonic poem; it’s not really a multi-movement symphony. With 22 continuous section of music it portrays a 24-hour experience (from just before dawn to the following night) of climbing an alpine mountain, and uses one of the largest number of players of any of his works – about 125. The work may be familiar to some collectors from the very first DGG compact disc that was pressed in 1983 – a performance by Herbert Karajan still considered one of the milestone recordings of the work. As a boy the composer had a mountain experience similar to that he described in the Alpine Symphony: His group lost their way going up and were caught in an alpine storm and soaked on the way back down.
The writing is some of Strauss’ most descriptive, and some of his ideas have been lifted by soundtrack composers ever since. The note booklet lists all 22 sections and their timings so you can follow the music with a stopwatch if you want to be thoroughly Germanic about this. They include sections such as At the Waterfall, On flowering meadows, The mist rises, and Thunder and tempest. The French horns playing hunting calls at the beginning come off very well in the surround option. The storm is even more punishing than Beethoven’s in his Sixth. The performance is good, and it’s very satisfying to have some of our American orchestra recorded and released again. And in great sonics too. For multichannel versions though – which seems most appropriate for this expansive symphonic poem – I prefer the Christian Thielemann version with the Vienna Philharmonic on a DGG SA.
However the opening selection here is the tone poem Macbeth, and I realized I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to that R. Strauss work in the past. It’s most exciting, and would strongly appeal to anyone who thinks – as I do – that Strauss’ Don Juan is one of his very best works. It’s also for a very large orchestra and in its almost 20-minute length brings forth two main themes. The lower orchestral instruments portray Macbeth’s theme, and Lady Macbeth’s theme is heard in the woodwinds. The moods vary among heroic, warlike and anxiety about terrible things. Some it becomes seriously atonal and dissonant, almost like late Mahler, or Schoenberg just before he went 12-tone. While the work is somewhat similar to the tone poems of Liszt, Strauss went him one better. I’m definitely keeping this SA for this glorious recording.
– John Sunier