Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie; Horn Concerto No. 2

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Strauss
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Eine Alpensinfonie; Horn Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Hermann Baumann (horn); Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
CATALOGUE NO: 454 524-2
For Strauss, as for Shakespeare, the lunatic (ie, Till), the lover (Juan) and the poet-philosopher (Zarathustra) are ‘of imagination all compact’. Mackerras, an effortless shaper of phrase, impetus and texture throughout, relishes the wittiest side of Zarathustra (Nietzsche’s waltzing superman, with aristocratic help from Hugh Bean’s solo violin), the serious aspect of Juan’s lovemaking and gives a rounded portrait of Till; five stars for all these aspects, at any price.

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The natural merits of Mackerras’s Abbey Road production (easy to take for granted) shine all the brighter compared with the multi-tracking mess DG and RCA make of the Strauss family household in their respective Symphonia domesticas. RCA promises spectacular realism in Dolby Surround; but for the majority of us without it, there is only unco-ordinated artifice. Maazel shows undeniable technical mastery, but plays up the work’s ‘triumphant banality’ (to quote the antipathetic booklet annotator in the rival DG set, borrowing Stravinsky’s phrase), mostly because he slows down and sentimentalises those passages which can least afford it. On DG, Previn’s deeper affection shines when the recording lets it – in Domestica’s intimate chamber-musical moments. He is the first to follow the work on disc with Strauss’s twenty-minute Parergon, written in 1925 for Paul Wittgenstein. It resuscitates the musical motif associated with Strauss’s child in the Symphony in noisy, sometimes astonishingly dissonant circumstances for the benefit of Wittgenstein’s left-hand-only pianism (Graffman, similarly disabled since 1979, must give thanks to that assiduous commissioner).

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The Alpine Symphony’s similar density of texture, with a higher degree of real inspiration, is ideally mitigated by transparent Leipzig sound. The strings may lack sensuality, but Masur knows where to let nature’s majesty breathe and where to move it forward (perfect after the glorious high noon). For a live performance with no evident ‘patching’, the interpretation is remarkably free of fluffs and split notes. The coupling, a reissued recording of the Second Horn Concerto, captures in full-bloomed sound the natural wonder of horn-player Hermann Baumann.