CD Review of Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (Kent Nagano, Göteborgs Symfoniker)
The Alps are only a short train ride from Munich, where Richard Strauss was born and lived for a great part of his life. In fact, as I recall from living there, you can see them from the window on a clear day, hovering along the horizon just out of reach. The experience of living in close proximity to the Alps – Strauss later settled in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foot of the Zugspitze – strongly affected his music and his view of life in general. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Alpensinfonie, op. 64, composed between 1911 and 1915. This excellent new CD by Kent Nagano and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra keeps listeners on the edge of their seats as they follow the protagonist in his perilous journey in the Alps.
The Alps and mountains in general have long fascinated German writers and artists: Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell; the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; Nietzsche; Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain; and, Bergfilme, a film genre about mountains (Ireton and Schaumann 2012). As the musicologist Christopher Morris states, Strauss’s conception of the mountains was mediated by ideas of his time period, which saw the birth of the nature-oriented German Youth Movement and the proliferation of numerous alpine societies (Morris 2012). Equally influential for Strauss were Nietzsche’s writings, as demonstrated by the 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. The initial title for Op. 64 was “The Antichrist. An Alpine Symphony,” alluding to a passage in Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist: “One must be skilled in living on mountains, seeing the wretched ephemeral babble of politics and national self-seeking beneath oneself.” Yet we must be careful not to reduce Strauss’s work to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Strauss was also responding to other musical works that depict nature, in particular Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), and Mahler’s First Symphony. Finally, Strauss provided a musical counterpart to the alpine novel, a type of adventure novel set in the Alps that was popularized by such authors as Ludwig Ganghofer and Ludwig Thoma. Like Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, these alpine novels often featured a life-and-death struggle with nature resulting in self-enlightenment (Morris 2012).
This recording was not my first time listening to Kent Nagano conduct Strauss. Nagano was the General Music Director at the Bayerische Staatsoper when I lived in Munich in 2006/2007, and I heard him conduct nearly every week. Nagano has a deep understanding of Strauss’s operas and orchestral works, a type of mastery that can only be achieved through many years of experience conducting Strauss’s works. Nagano presents Strauss as a modernist composer that uses an enormous orchestra to create a highly differentiated sound palette. Nagano keeps the rich orchestral textures transparent enough so that one can always hear the contrapuntal treatment of the melodic voices and Strauss’s ability to create seamless transitions between contrasting episodes.
The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO) has long been one of my favorite ensembles. I grew up listening to their superb recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I was nevertheless surprised to read about their long tradition of performing Strauss’s works. The GSO performed Don Juan in their 1905-1906 inaugural season. In 1917, Strauss visited Sweden and praised the city of Gothenburg for its outstanding musical culture. Over the years, the GSO has performed Strauss’s works many times. In order to celebrate the composer’s 150th anniversary in 2014, Nagano and the GSO have been performing and recording all of Strauss’s major orchestral works (many of these performances are available on the GSO’s Vimeo channel.)
(A short promotional video about this CD)
In my opinion, the best part of this recording is “On the Summit” (Auf dem Gipfel), at which point the protagonist has reached his goal (listen to a preview on iTunes.) The Zarathustra motif sounds above a bed of shimmering tremolo strings. This is followed by a reference to the oboe melody from the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), when the artist is in the countryside and hears two shepherds piping a mountain tune. The Zarathustra motif returns at 1:51 accompanied by a brass choir and percussion. A soaring string melody then appears above pedal tones in the low brass and strings (2:19). The soaring melody is juxtaposed with a countermelody in the brass. This movement of Strauss’s work is a moment of extreme elation after having reached the mountain’s summit. The episode’s majestic major tonality contrasts the extreme chromaticism of the other movements, lending it a feeling of arrival and stability.
According to the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature, the adventure novel is a genre in which the reader follows a protagonist through a series of episodes involving extreme danger and that are overcome through both cunning and hard work. In the Alpine Symphony, we encounter a similar narrative of a protagonist who aspires to ascend a mountain. Like the adventure novel, Strauss’s tone poem is made up of a number of episodes, each one propelling the action forward. Another key feature of the adventure novel is the attention to realistic details, which meant incorporating the latest scientific research and information from real expeditions. We find a corresponding realism in Strauss’s work, more specifically his ability to conjure up the illusion of a real, life-like sonic landscape. For example, we hear such things as a distant hunting party (Der Anstieg), bird calls, a babbling brook, a waterfall, and the intense winds of an alpine storm (Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg). In conclusion, by highlighting the music’s exciting episodic nature and its programmatic details, Nagano and the GSO present the Alpine Symphony as a type of musical adventure novel. I highly recommend this recording.
Ireton, Sean and Caroline Schaumann. “Introduction: The Meaning of Mountains: Geology, History, Culture.” In Heights of Reflection: Mountains in the German Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Sean Ireton and Caroline Schaumann, 1-19. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012. [Link to book]
Morris, Christopher. Modernism and the Cult of Mountains: Music, Opera, Cinema. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub., 2012. [Link to book]
Youmans, Charles Dowell. Richard Strauss’s Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. [Link to book]