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Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Total Perspective Vortex

Strauss, Nietzsche and Ein Alpensinfonie
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The climactic moment of Strauss' Ein Alpensinfonie.

Before he rose to fame as the creator of operas like Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss was famed for his tone poems. Of these, his last and most ambitious is Ein Alpensinfonie from 1915. It is a mind-boggling 22-movement work which follows some of the conventions of a proper symphony but is designed to be played as one single unit, telling the story of a day's journey up an Alp in his native Bavaria.

The work had a tortured genesis. Strauss conceived the work based on a childhood climb in the Bavarian Alps, which ended in the climbing party being caught in a summer thunderstorm that forced them to run for shelter. He also factored the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (one of his considered titles for the piece was Antichrist) into the central idea of the piece, man in communion with nature and in eternal struggle against the elements. The result stands as a kind of spiritual sequel to Also Sprach Zarathustra and also has something in common with other Straussian self-portraits like Ein Heldenleben and the Sinfonia domestica.

The superb 1971 recording made by Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden Staatskapelle (the orchestra which premiered this work, and which recorded it with Strauss himself conducting) remains the choice. The work opens with a mysterious hush, a murky fabric of low strings with occasional muffled noises from the double bass, the heckelphone (a bass oboe that Strauss favored) and the contrabassoon. This gloom gives way to the Dawn, and the introduction of the work's first major theme. It surges ahead brightly, and the listener is off on the upward climb.

The ascent continues with pastoral passages depicting woods, meadows and fields. A hunting party (heard once and never again in the rest of the work) is represented by an offstage band of horns, trumpets and trombones. Always tricky to place in the concert hall, they are in a different, distant acoustic on this recording, perfectly balanced with the ensemble. That's 125 players, by the way, with huge string and expanded woodwind sections, a full-throated brass choir, percussion, wind machine, thunder machine and organ.

Strauss then throws in the kitchen sink. There is a picturesque depiction of a waterfall, in tinkling strings and celesta. The Alpine meadows are represented by cowbells. And as the climbers in the story get higher, the orchestra thins out like the atmosphere above the snowline. "On the Glacier" and "Treacherous Moments" are small sections of this work, but brilliant examples of tone-painting, sparse woodwind themes and fragmented chords that suggest that the "conservative" Strauss did learn something from the serialists of the Second Viennese School.

Most symphonies have their climax and resolution in the last movement. In the Alpine it takes place in the thirteenth movement On the Summit. Strauss unleashes a reprise of the Dawn theme and then reduces the orchestra to a single oboe, a stammering overwhelmed portrait of the climbers fazing out  at the wonders of the Alpine landscape,feeling dwarfed by the majestic landscape. Its's kind of the classical music equivalent of Douglas Adams' "Total Perspective Vortex", a vast picture of the universe with a little arrow that says "You are here."

The next section, "Vision" is the work's most Nietzschean, a lengthy, Zarathustra-like expansion on the themes that have gone before and a last breath of sunlight before the crazy descent sequence that is going to make up the later half of this work. This starts off with the key changing into a minor key, and the sun hides behind sudden, looming clouds. The color of the orchestra darkens and lowers itself from the dizzy heights, and the sense of tension is palpable.

A few plinking raindrops and then all hell breaks loose. Strauss employs wind machine, (a canvas belt on a rolled drum that makes a whistling noise) thunder-sheet and the organ for the fury of the storm. The scenes from the journey (minus the cowbells and the hunting-party) come back in rapid reverse order, quick flashes and impressions of each as if lit by stabs of lightning. The rain hammers down and the percussion section comes into play, with the organ's stern voice keening through the tempest. It is a hell of a show, and the most treacherous part of this work as conductors have gotten lost in this chaotic and demanding music.

And then suddenly the tempest is over. Strauss ends the work with a gorgeous slow sunset, as his majestic theme reappears transformed and descending as the great ball of fire sinks below the horizon. The last pages are a reworking of the opening nachtmusik from the opening. a slow, breathing figure for low woodwinds and melancholy strings. Now however, the music has a sense of accomplishment and journey finished, both for Strauss' Alpine expedition and for the listener, conductor and small army of musicians employed to make this enormous and difficult work come to vivid life.

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