23 February 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Strauss: “An Alpine Symphony”

Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony“ is a symphonic poem that was first performed in 1915. It is his longest orchestral work, lasting about 50 minutes and written for a huge orchestra of about 120 musicians.

“A solid fortissimo is something one needs sometimes. I remember a Karajan concert featuring the ‘Alpine Symphony’ by Strauss and I couldn’t get enough of that fortissimo. I haven’t experienced anything like that with any other conductor. With Karajan, I had the impression it could last forever. His fortissimo was always balanced and beautiful, so I thought: ‘Go on, go on…louder, louder!’”
Christian Thielemann

Strauss’ last major tone poem describes the ascent of a mountain in the German or Austrian Alps and is based both on memories from his youth and on his study of Nietzsche.

It is remarkable that Karajan, one of the most important of all Strauss conductors, only found his way to the “Alpine Symphony” when he was over 70. In December 1980, Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic made their only studio recording. Between 1981 and 1988, they performed the piece 20 times in concert. Karajan never interpreted it with another orchestra.

The small Alpine town of Altaussee in Styria, Austria erected this memorial stone. It says: “Richard Strauss received many inspirations for his work in the region of Lake Aussee, especially for his ‘Alpine Symphony’”.


On 15 April 1981, the Salzburg Easter Festival gave a press conference. Herbert von Karajan, Akio Morita and Norio Ohga of SONY presented a new medium for musical recording, the “Compact Disc Digital Audio System”. Karajan said “This is a technological advance that is comparable with the changeover from gas lamps to electric light.” And he was quite right. With its crystal clear sound and a duration much longer than the vinyl LP, the “CD” became the most widespread musical medium between 1983 and 2013, and it is no exaggeration to call that period the “CD era”, with one prominent medium providing the soundtrack for billions of people. Karajan’s infallible intuition for technical innovation prompted him to record for CD immediately. And the first genuine commercially pressed CD in history was Karajan’s recording of Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony” with the Berlin Philharmonic.

“When Deutsche Grammophon asked me to record the Alpine Symphony, I warned them that it would be very expensive. It needs a very large orchestra and I needed a lot of rehearsals so that I could have time to explain the piece fully to the orchestra. It is a piece that shows Strauss’s deep understanding of nature, and, again, it shows him as the great master of the musical epilogue.”

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