SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

* R. STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie; Symphonic Fantasy from “Die Frau ohne Schatten” – Sao Paulo Sym. Orch./ Frank Shipway – BIS

************ MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH ***********
 Explosive sound and a richly vibrant interpretation make this the best SACD version available.

Published on December 19, 2012

* R. STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie; Symphonic Fantasy from “Die Frau ohne Schatten” – Sao Paulo Sym. Orch./ Frank Shipway – BIS

* RICHARD STRAUSS: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64; Symphonic Fantasy from “Die Frau ohne Schatten” – Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra/ Frank Shipway – BIS multichannel SACD 1950, 77:04 (9/12) [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:

Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is really catching on; maybe it’s because the public is tiring of his constantly played standard tone poems and looking for something more straightforward and direct, not encumbered with philosophical literary allusions and devices, something as simple a depiction of an Alpine hike. Right?

Wrong!

What most people don’t know is that this piece is mired in as much gobbledygook as anything Strauss ever wrote; indeed, it is up to its eyeballs in Nietzschian jargon and hyperbole. The piece was originally to be called The Antichrist—an Alpine Symphony where Nietzsche’s work The Antichrist, an attack on Christianity in general (which the author believed had poisoned western society) was portrayed as an ascetical effort which “embodies moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal glorious nature.” Pantheism was present to an extreme degree among the later romantics, and Strauss was no exception. The Alpine Symphony was supposed to be this uber-gargantuan tome on themes no composer could possibly hope to emulate in music.

Strauss, of course, would try. But even he failed when the vastness of his musical canvass became apparent. Instead he decided to focus only on the nature side of things, giving us an expansive and material work that has as its basis Nietzsche’s superman struggling to ascend the mountain through hard effort and purification before descending again to the common and everyday. None of this matters of course, as none of Strauss’s philosophies do—they rarely prevent the enjoyment of his consummate skill as an orchestrator (he said that only here in this symphony had he “finally learned how to orchestrate”) and his sumptuous sonic canvasses (the largest orchestra he was to ever use). We revel in the sheer glory of the sound, and few of his pieces are so structured to fit perfectly the advantages of Super Audio.

The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra plays like the Concertgebouw in this recording—everything is simply brilliant, forceful, dynamic, and technically perfect. I did not know British conductor Frank Shipway before this, but he certainly knows his Strauss. He doesn’t linger as long as Christian Thielemann in his recent Blu-ray recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, a reading I still hold as best ever, but it is very close, and the things the engineers achieve with offstage effects (completely coming at us from the back speakers) and gorgeous capturing of the strings (phenomenal) and glorious brass make this the top recommendation for the Alpine on SACD. You really have to hear it to believe it, and the BIS folks have got to be happy with this one.

As a filler, if it can be called such, we get Strauss’s own arrangement of his Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow), the opera Strauss believed his greatest, and certainly contains some of his most inspired music. Though the large orchestra is still smaller than the one used in the premiere of the opera in 1947 (Karl Böhm conducting) this in no way compromises the music, selected by the composer as his favorite as opposed to any sort of chronological order. It’s a remarkable and glowing account of one of Strauss’s most ambitious and fantastic stage works. Again, the performers outdo themselves with a reading of gusto and unreserved passion. A must-have, no two ways about it.

—Steven Ritter




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