Symphony No.104 in D (London)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 7 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
For the penultimate concert of this year’s BBC Proms season, the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink scaled the heights of Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. As a contrasting opener was ‘Papa’ Haydn’s final symphony, the conclusion of his London period. In this Haitink’s moderation was ideal; time to point and phrase, beginning with a majestic and explorative introduction before an urbane Allegro was set in motion. Here was a fresh-sounding performance, very agreeable to ears set to 2012, neither glossy nor nasal, just sweet and warm, the music speaking for itself, flowing in the second-movement Andante but without overlooking its heart-rending arousals. The Minuet danced with purpose, its trio eye-moistening in its expression, and the finale was a robust summing-up of Haydn’s symphonic career (not that he was finished as a composer), Haitink judging well the music’s blend of culmination and valediction.
As for the Strauss, however descriptive, picturesque and tumultuous, it has definite symphonic shape and reach – and is psychologically deeper than is often considered. Here it benefitted from Haitink’s wholesome approach. Inspired by mountains if not necessarily only ‘about’ ascending and descending one (despite Strauss’s explicit section titles, all 22 of them), Haitink’s approach made this a seamless journey, symphonic seeds sown from the outset embedded into a subdued and misty dawn emerging from ‘Night’, with trepidation in the air for the ensuing climb.
If the opening chord was ragged, and if the brass slipped on the ice occasionally (and good to have the no-expense-spared addition of London Brass for the off-stage hunting calls, Strauss naughtily extravagant), the Vienna Philharmonic’s wealth of experience in this music and the certainty of Haitink’s conducting – scrupulous, balanced, detailed and dynamic – ensured a relationship and integration for each of the events, an arc that found the arriving at the summit as a staging post (after all we have to come down again) and made the storm music all the more inclusive and climactic, made to seem the equivalent of an in-reverse recapitulation when motifs are heard again, now in tumbledown fashion; and the Vienna Philharmonic – willing cohorts to Haitink’s unwaveringly musical approach – knows a thing or two about Thunder and Lightning.
After the bashing that Cameron Carpenter and Wayne Marshall had recently given the Royal Albert Hall organ, it was good to hear its intimate and refined side as part of the orchestral scoring, and come the ‘Epilogue’ the strings eased into one of Strauss’s most-glorious long-sung emotional exposés with golden sound and accustomed style. As ‘Night’ follows day, so it returned; we knew it would – here with an extra and unindulged degree of inevitability. An Alpine Symphony received a 52-minute performance as magnificent as the mountain itself and as deeply articulated as the music demands.
If an encore should follow, then something from one of the Vienna-based Strauss Family (Munich-born Richard unrelated to it) seemed ideal, certainly from this of all orchestras. Thus Johann II’s Voices of Spring waltz (Frühlingsstimmen) was ushered in, unhurried, affectionate, played as only this orchestra can, and somewhat autumnal, suggesting a depth of feeling not always unearthed in more vernal accounts. The moral of the story would seem to be, never judge a piece of music from the composer’s title page alone, especially if mountains and springtime are involved.