It's an ironic coincidence that as we get into this pair of Mahler anniversaries we have two new recordings of Strauss's Alpine Symphony. (There's another, I gather, in the can from recent performances of the CBSO and Andris Nelsons, to be released on Orfeo.) As studies of the symphony's long gestation have shown, it was finally completed as both a tribute to Mahler the man and a critique of what Strauss interpreted, in a famous diary entry, as his philosophical weakness. The Alpine Symphony was to be inspired by Nietzsche's Antichrist in reaction to what he saw as Mahler's loss of nerve, turning his back on artistic self-determination and finding solace in religion; it's a view that has clear echoes of Nietzsche's own famous criticism of Wagner's Parsifal.
The pictorial virtuosity of Strauss's score is such that it is easy to overlook its background and the very real creative angst that pervades much of it. As such, having two conductors of such unimpeachable musical integrity as Bernard Haitink and Semyon Bychkov at the helm of these two new recordings would lead one to hope for a certain seriousness of purpose. In the event, that is largely what we get. However, having greatly admired Haitink's reading of the score with the London Symphony Orchestra in the concert hall – at one of the concerts that was recorded for this release – I find the results on disc slightly less compelling.
Strangely, it's what seems like an attempt to tie the work together, mainly through an ironing out of tempos, that is at the root of the problem. There's no denying the magnificent playing of the London Symphony Orchestra, whose quality is certainly held up to close scrutiny by the very detailed recorded sound. The solo playing is outstanding, in particular – the brilliantly characterised bassoon solo that introduces the 'Gefahrvolle Augenblicke', for example, or an awestruck but unhammy oboe at the summit, and rarely have I heard the intricate details of the waterfall come across so clearly. The flutes, however, are too closely balanced in the 'Ausklang', so that their breathiness saturates the texture. This was also one of the passages where I was at odds with Haitink's reading, there being too little change in tempo between the preceding Sunset and the 'Etwas breit und getragen' marking here. It all just sounds a touch rushed. I had similar feelings about his way at the summit, a moment which, like the actual recorded sound, fails to open up as one wants, with the horns also slightly set back in the sound picture. Haitink is at his finest in the work's moments of doubt, and provides a wrenching build-up in the Elegy but the Storm is highly virtuosic but a little business-like, until we get to a truly shattering climax, that is.
Conversely, Bychkov and his WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, have far less in the way of surface glitter, recorded in slightly bass-heavy sound, and explore greater extremes of tempo. However, Bychkov's achievement is to create a greater sense of unity, with the work's trajectory charted organically through its many different moods. The playing of his Cologne band is still extremely fine, and although I also felt he might have taken longer at the summit, he draws out that climax more convincingly, and is every bit as disturbing in the Elegy. The sense of ominous foreboding before the storm is captured expertly, too, while there's a passion in the Sunset missing from Haitink's performance. The 'Ausklang' is beautifully integrated and, like his view of the whole work, seems to have been conceived in long paragraphs.
Both these recordings have qualities to recommend them, but enter very competitive fields. The fact that Bychkov includes a buoyant Till Eulenspiegel is less of a clincher, though, than the rare cohesiveness of his performance. It might not be the most thrilling Alpensinfonie, but it is certainly one of the most profoundly musical.
By Hugo Shirley