These are concert performances and it is reasonable to draw on live events since an enormous number of players are required for An Alpine Symphony. There are no audience noises and there is a suitable quarter-minute silence before the companion work begins. Spectacular sound is of the essence and engineer Peter Urban achieves it. There is a history of outstanding recordings of Alpine Symphony: half-a-century ago Kenneth Wilkinson obtained amazing reproduction from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Kingsway Hall, London when Rudolf Kempe brought remarkable unity to the music’s many facets. I was strongly reminded of that version as I listened to Mariss Jansons taking a similar view and bringing cohesion to this work, taking the same overall time to perform it, fifty-one minutes. Of course advancement in technology means that this BR-Klassik release adds bite to the brass and achieves greater clarity and spaciousness yet the balance in both is admirable.
Bringing out pictorial references to the various scenes while ensuring that the drama progresses in symphonic terms is something that Bernard Haitink achieves (Concertgebouw and LSO); to his credit, Jansons sees the general structure in a way similar to the distinguished Dutchman while adding personal touches – for example, after an especially vivid representation of the waterfall during the ascent, there is an unexplained ‘Apparition’ – a moment which Jansons contrives to make all the more mysterious as the shining woodwinds and tremulous strings lead to a quiet hint of the grand theme that will be heard when the journey reaches the summit. Climactic moments are clear no matter how forceful, and at the mountain peak the volume is enormous, and later on in the even more extravagantly-scored ‘Storm’ every detail remains well-defined. Thereafter, the remaining ten minutes continue the descent towards the peace of nightfall with Jansons ensuring it remains colourful, the sunset episode being particularly evocative.
Although Richard Strauss did provide a programmatic description for Death and Transfiguration the title is sufficient to indicate his intentions. This is a not the same venue and there is a different engineer (Klemens Kamp) but the sonic aspects remain exceptionally realistic. Timpani have an important role and they are given an admirably natural timbre; Wilhelm Furtwängler initially refused to have his HMV recording released because of the inadequate timpani reproduction. Jansons holds the tension throughout as part of a sensitive, deeply-thought reading to leave the listener in a reflective mood – only to be rudely interrupted eight seconds later by irrelevant clapping. The recording was made over several days, so which bit is being applauded? No matter, press the ‘stop’ button soon enough and the music provides a moving experience.