Richard Strauss: Alpine Symphony Op.64; Macbeth Op.23

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski (Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 339)

26 August 2009 4 stars

Alpine SymphonyFew works lend themselves better to the expanded sonic possibilities of SACD than Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, the final and most technically magnificent of his tone poems. This new account from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Marek Janowski enters a highly competitive field which includes very well received recent accounts from the Staatskappelle Dresden under Fabio Luisi on Sony, and the Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons on the orchestra's own label.

Janowski's new reading, however, is so eminently intelligent and carefully crafted that it takes its place among the front-runners, its position bolstered by Pentatone's exemplary engineering. Like Jansons's, Janowski's is very much a thinking-man's Alpine Symphony, yet he still captures the score's moments of drama and glittering brilliance in full, not something I felt came across in Jansons's well-reviewed account. Tempos are on the swift side – he comes in under 50 minutes – and he pays close attention to Strauss's markings, yet the result sounds neither rushed nor pedantic. Instead, it's a reading that builds naturally, emphasising the work's internal unity and logic: no longer is this the apogee (or nadir, depending on one's view) of Strauss's career as cutlery-setting musical literalist, but a coherent and masterful attempt to fuse symphonic ambitions with Lisztian techniques of melodic metamorphosis, to reconcile a picturesque surface with a deeply serious, philosophical subtext.

Undoubtedly there have been more viscerally thrilling accounts but the long-breathed nobility of the 'Sunrise' sets the scene here movingly, the horns spinning their legato lines magnificently. The ascent itself is spritely and Janowski is in the minority in reacting to Strauss's 'Frisch vorwärts' marking in 'On flowering meadows'; he sees little sense in hanging about unnecessarily when 'lost in the thicket and undergrowth'. There's a real sense of drama 'On the glacier', while the 'Dangerous moments' are tense, the eventual arrival at the summit is sensitively done – with a beautifully tentative oboe solo – and the brass, although thrilling, are powerful but controlled. Janowski maybe misses some of the wrenching tension of the 'Vision' (one can't help but miss the intensity of the great European orchestras' string sections here) but brings his enormous dramatic experience to bear both here and at the build-up and unleashing of the storm. The final 'sunset' is passionate while the 'epilogue' and 'night' are wonderfully detailed – rarely have I heard Strauss's specific dynamic markings observed so closely – featuring some exquisite solo work from the principal horn in particular, bringing a very fine performance to a close.  

As a coupling we have Strauss's early Macbeth in a performance with many of the same virtues: clean, tautly argued and impassioned. With Strauss's earlier work, too, Janowski's careful control of the brass writing is a great asset. It makes an interesting choice as accompaniment, showing the first hints of Strauss's true mastery in a musical genre he would make his own. Macbeth's had its champions but looks unlikely to find a regular place in the concert hall and, listening to it, one can't help wishing that this attempt a capturing a great literary subject had come a little later in the composer's career.

This disc follows another of Strauss tone poems on Pentatone, a disappointing release from Marc Albrecht and the Orchestre Symphonique de Strasbourg. On this showing, I rather hope that if one marks the start of a cycle, it's Janowski's. Highly recommended.  

By Hugo Shirley