I just finished watching “Eine Alpensinfonie” on DVD, taped at the Berlin Philharmonie in 1983 and released under the Sony label, as a part of the Herbert von Karajan “His Legacy for Home Video” series. This Berlin Philharmonic performance was given in observance of All Souls Day, and originally posthumously released under Karajan’s own Telemondial label in 1991.
First of all, this magnificent piece of music was composed by Richard Strauss between 1911 and 1915. It was his last tone poem and in my opinion, his greatest one in many respects. In purely instrumental terms, this work is an effective depiction of the ascent and descent of a mountain. Beginning with night just before dawn and ending with night after sunset, the signposts of roughly 12 hours are reflected in the score; i.e., “Night,” “Sunrise,” “The Ascent,” “At the Summit,” “Calm Before the Storm,” etc. What happens in between, as well as the two “Nights” which serve as bookends, is one of the true marvels of music, in terms of orchestration and imagination.
As with other Karajan films under his artistic supervision, he was the main subject of the lens. Truly, he is one of the more interesting conductors to watch sculpt and shape the music with his hands. In fact, I don’t think anyone can best Karajan where sheer “fervor” is concerned.
That being said, there are so many interesting and unusual instruments in this piece which should merit expert video attention; therefore, I believe the camerawork comes up short. Although the typical side view shots of the woodwind and brass players were dramatic, they needed to be supplemented by full frontal views revealing the breadth and depth of the entire sections. Fortunately, newer productions of works such as this one do a better job.
I should digress momentarily and mention that I am in possession of a Dover edition of this score, in which certain musical signposts are numbered. I will refer to these numbers below:
In addition, there are questionable musical choices in this performance. For example, why did Karajan not place the “hunting horns from afar” offstage as instructed in the score, beginning five bars after 18? The desired effect was lost, as the extra players were clearly visible onstage. Anyway, when all of the horns played, the camera shot of the entire orchestra denied us a chance to see their efforts. What a waste!
Later, after reaching the summit, four trombones enter in G, C and G in octaves before 80 and are not sufficiently fortissimo, as indicated in the score. Therefore, when the four trumpets (Karajan used five) DO come in at 80 playing at the proper blazing fortissimo, they overpower the trombones, instead of matching their volume. When the six horns enter with their majestic tune four bars after 80, only four of them receive the well-deserved attention from the camera. This is yet another instance of injustice to the piece. The enormity of this tone poem needs to be seen as well as heard.
Speaking of missing instruments, where was the Heckelphone? Why wasn’t the wind machine shown during the storm sequence? Oh, that’s right–Karajan appeared to have opted for a recording of wind instead. This was perhaps another example of his desire to be on the “cutting edge” of 1983 technological developments!
Despite these gripes, I was still able to enjoy the magnificent playing by the Berlin Philharmonic. However, this piece requires teamwork from all parties involved and this DVD contains many challenges including recorded balances, which could have been repaired during the postproduction process. Since Karajan was the artistic supervisor for this DVD and presumably had “final cut” authority, I have to place most of the blame for these transgressions on his shoulders.
Nevertheless, there is some great and inspired music making on this disc and you should check it out, by all means. But you should also watch other DVD performances of the piece, to get a “bigger picture.”
As this is one of my favorite pieces of music, I admittedly am more critical of this release. I could go on and on…