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Richard Strauss An Alpine Symphony/Four Last Songs Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review of the finest Strauss recordings I've heard in ages.

Andrew McGregor 2008

Strauss's last tone poem depicts a day in the mountains, inspired by an alpine expedition as a teenager (during which he'd lost his way), and written with an awesome view of the peaks from his villa in Garmisch. It's easy for a recorded performance to thrill from the outset, with one of the most radiant depictions of a sunrise anywhere in music. But then many conductors seem to lose their way, and their grip…and the fact that Luisi doesn't must be at least in part due to his personal understanding of Strauss's deeper intent. Despite the astonishing realism of Strauss's depictions of nature, this is ''not simply a sound painting'', says Luisi, ''but impressions of nature filtered through personal human experience'', and you sense his commitment to the vision behind the alpine ramble in the way the performance moves inexorably towards several focal points. The opening, for instance: a thing of beauty to be sure, but also the upbeat to the entry to the forest…it turns out that's where we’ve been heading from the first flickering of sunlight. Luisi doesn’t hang around at altitude either; there’s no slacking in pace, no pausing to admire the view, until at Strauss's summit we reach the vision that’s the calm, still centre of the work. The inexorable progress of the performance is impressive, and so is the glorious sound it makes…characterful wind playing, full-fat brass, and radiant strings. The Dresden Staatskapelle can claim to be one of the great Strauss orchestras; it plays as though it owns the score, and the sound Sony’s engineers have captured is everything they could have asked: appropriately resonant, detailed, airy, and with an effortless dynamic range, whether you’re listening in stereo or in surround of the SACD layer.

If that's the cake, here comes the icing: Anja Harteros's performance of Strauss's Four Last Songs, an achievement which shouldn’t be in any way overshadowed by the lofty peaks traversed beforehand. She's committed not just to the beauty of the musical line, but to the emotional truth behind the text, and I haven't heard such heart-piercing clarity of expression since Soile Isokoski's award-winning recording. True to form Luisi and the Dresdeners keep these late-flowering blooms aloft with the deftest of touches, and smoothly-flowing tempi that never pause long enough for self-indulgence to set in. Simply beautiful, in every respect, and one of the finest Strauss recordings I've heard in ages.

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