At the summit, does time slow down?

Eine Alpensinfonie is one of the coolest pieces of music in the world. It’s super evocative, filled with typical Straussian majesty, and it has one of the most straightforward and easy to grasp narratives that a symphonic poem could ask for. While there are dozens of amazing spots found throughout the work, it’s somewhat self-evident that the baddest-ass part is when we make it to the top of the mountain. If Bruckner 9 is the music most likely to accompany the final battle between good and evil, then the summit music from Alpensinfonie is probably the most likely music to accompany a victory by the good guys. 

There are plenty of quality recordings of the piece, and many of them do the work justice. Of the readily available ones, I’m partial to the Marek Janowski/Pittsburgh Symphony recording, mostly because the Pittsburgh Symphony plays like they’re climbing the mountain so as to attack all of humankind with a great and wonderful noise. Most recordings take the summit music at a pretty similar clip, keeping things moving along at a moderate clip. 

One recording that I have, though, take their sweet time up there. Some years ago, the legendary Japanese maestro Takashi Asahina released a recording with some sort of pickup Japanese orchestra that billed itself as the “All-Japan Symphony Orchestra.” This recording is separate from the one he released with the Osaka Philharmonic, which is also excellent. Anyway, this All-Japan performance is mind-blowing to me, not the least of which reason is this insane experience at the summit. Asahina goes VERY slow through the entire section, and it feels completely different than any other recording I’ve heard. 

The link below is not to that performance, unfortunately. It’s to a performance that Asahina conducted with the NDR Hamburg back in 1990. The mountaintop music is about as slow as the All-Japan performance, though, which is the point of me writing this in the first place. The execution is pretty rough in the buildup to the climax, but once the climax hits, it’s pretty smooth sailing. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and opinions on the tempo. I love it, and I really think it changes the complexion of the entire piece. It’s definitely not for everyone, though.

Give it a listen and let me know what you think. If you just want to hear the summit music, cue it up to the neighborhood of the 22:50 mark and go from there. Happy climbing!

Asahina – Alpine Symphony


In which I use the words “sesquicentennial” and “fucking,” one of which may have been in my 7th-grade spelling bee

640px-DBPB_1954_124_Richard_StraussIn spite of whatever I have going on this month, I couldn’t let today pass without saying something about the sesquicentennial anniversary of the birth of one of music’s all-time legendary figures, Richard Strauss. The great Mark Berry, of whose talent I am supremely envious, wrote a piece for The Conversation that is a must-read for anyone who likes good writing and Strauss. Deutsche Welle has an alternate perspective that touches on a couple of the same themes with admittedly less journalistic pizzazz. I certainly don’t have anything to add from a scholarship perspective. I will gladly, though, talk about the important place Strauss holds in my life. I’ve written about the man many times before, so if some of these obviously salient points are repeats from days gone by, please accept my apologies, or just be polite and pretend like they’re new. Continue reading

10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 9



Symphonia Domestica, finale by Richard Strauss

You may not have suspected that Richard Strauss would place on a list like this, considering he’s known for tone poems. In fact, most commentators tend to describe both of Strauss’ mature symphonies as tone poems anyway, which may be 10% true, but both Eine Alpensinfonie and Symphonia Domestica are symphonies, admittedly with unique structures and approaches. Domestica in particular is symphonically constructed, whatever that may mean, with the movements connecting thematically and motivically with the sublime effortlessness that is synonymous with Strauss. Continue reading

Something cool you might have missed: Festliches Präludium

Smooth gentleman of leisure, Richard Strauss

Smooth gentleman of leisure, Richard Strauss

My love for Richard Strauss is well-documented in these parts. I’m on record somewhere sometime in saying that he composed with the greatest ease of anyone who ever lived – more than even Mozart, the most common answer given when the “who’s the most naturally gifted?” question arises. Strauss has an innate ability to make music sound absolutely bad ass that towers over everyone around him, and while this is not necessarily to suggest that it means he is the greatest composer or the most meaningful or the composer we’ll turn to in our darkest hours for solace or whatever the fuck else we laud Beethoven and Bach for, we’ve gotta take Strauss for who he was, and that’s someone so unimaginably skilled that it literally and truly boggles the mind.  Continue reading

Wolfgang Sawallisch, RIP


Wolfgang Sawallisch died Friday at the age of 89. I confess to have been working under the assumption that he had died years ago. Because conducting is often something that people at the highest levels do until they’re extremely fucking old (or extremely fucking dead in some cases), it’s unusual to think of a world-class maestro “retiring” to the Bavarian Alps and just chilling and playing piano and shit. But that’s exactly what Sawallisch did – his last major gig was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which ended in 2003 and he retired “officially” in 2006 – something that, as I reflect upon that unbelievably relaxed cardigan/tie combo and wry smile, seems totally reasonable, ill health or otherwise. Continue reading

Something to listen to: Don Juan

Richard Strauss circa 1888

A great deal is often made about musical precocity, especially when it comes to Mozart and Mendelssohn (and to a MUCH lesser extent Korngold). The notion of these genius composers writing music when they’re young children is somehow a sign that their intrinsic gifts surpass those of much more “normal” composers who struggle for years mastering the art of composition (like Bruckner, for example). Is Don Giovanni MORE genius than Bruckner 9? Not really, but Mozart is regarded as a pseudo-mythological genius. And the most interesting part about it is that this perception stems from his adorable-for-a-4-year-old-but-not-exactly-amazing childhood compositions and not from his this-music-has-forever-altered-the-course-of-human-history mature compositions. Continue reading

Symphonia Domestica and the art of the musical hard-on

Richard Strauss

Why so serious?

Of all the divisive figures in music history, perhaps none inspires as much debate as Richard Strauss. He is a genius, a schlocky Romantic, a master. Too playful, too saccharine, too heavy, not serious enough. A first-rate composer, or a first-class second-rate composer as he himself said. Excessive, simple, arrogant, profound. Truth be told, he’s all those things and then some, but above all else he’s a showman, and no one can top him for sheer listenability. Of all the great composers Strauss, to me, is the most likely to inspire someone to listen to more classical music, and it’s obvious why: his shit is entertaining as hell. Continue reading