Scaling Strauss Twice, And Matching Peaks In The ‘Alpine Symphony’

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Frankfurt’s Alte Oper was the site of two recent performances of Richard Strauss’ ‘Alpine Symphony’ featuring two Frankurt orchestras.

FRANKFURT — There can’t be many cities in the world where one can hear Richard Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony played by two different orchestras from the same city in the same hall just a few days apart. Frankfurt is one of them. These performances took place on April 15 and 25 by, respectively, the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra (FOMO), and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (FRSO) in the Alte Oper. Dedicated Alpinists could also have heard still a third Alpine Symphony in the Alte Oper in September 2023, when the Dresden Staatskapelle came to town.

Seasoned concertgoers well know that the Alte Oper is neither “old” nor an “opera house.” The building on this site was originally an opera house, opened in 1880, but it was extensively damaged during World War II. A new hall was built and opened in 1981 as Frankfurt’s leading concert venue, albeit with an old name. Opera is now performed in the Opern- und Schauspielhaus. The latter theater’s resident orchestra is the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra, the “Museum” component of the name deriving from a tradition dating back to 1808 for a concert series organized by the Frankfurt Museum Society.

Thomas Guggeis (Photo by Barbara Aumüller)

The Opera and Museum Orchestra may not command the international profile held by Frankfurt’s Radio Symphony Orchestra, but it is nonetheless an A-list orchestra in the established hierarchy and one of Germany’s oldest symphonic ensembles, dating back to the late 18th century. Louis Spohr was one of its earliest conductors.

In more recent times, Clemens Krauss, William Steinberg, Georg Solti, Christoph von Dohnányi, and Michael Gielen have been its music directors. Thomas Guggeis currently holds the post. Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and Also sprach Zarathustra were premiered by this orchestra; Brahms and Clara Schumann ranked among its soloists; and from 1913 to 1923, Paul Hindemith served in various concertmaster roles. Among many other distinctions, for the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons, it was voted one of the top three German opera orchestras as selected by Germany’s leading opera journals.

With a history like that behind it, one expected — and got — from the FOMO an Alpine Symphony of rare distinction. The entire orchestra sounded glorious. The eight-member horn section might have consisted exclusively of first-chair players, the contrabass trombone rattled the floor with its awesome power, and Guggeis drew enormous volume at key moments without blare or force. Seldom have I heard such clarity during the storm scene, despite Strauss’ inordinately thick orchestration, nor such unnerving tension in the passage depicting calm before the storm. Additional features of this performance included two thunder sheets for the climactic moment of the entire work, all 12 extra horns Strauss requested for the offstage hunting fanfares, and even a spoken introduction to representative moments of the score by a musicologist, assisted by musical examples.

The Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra (Photo by Sophia Hegewald)

It would be churlish to claim that the performance heard 10 days later from the FRSO was any better or worse than what the FOMO delivered, but there were notable differences. British conductor Nicholas Collon, chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony, created a darker, more mysterious “Night,” while the FOMO had the more spectacular principal trumpet player, whose stratospheric high notes pierced the orchestra like laser beams. Collon paced the sunrise more evenly, but Guggeis’ principal oboist conveyed the view from the top of the mountain with breathtaking beauty beyond words. And so it went — one astonishing moment after another from both orchestras.

Overall, one could say that Collon emphasized the lyrical elements often overlooked or underplayed in other performances: “Wandering along the Brook,” for example, had the intimacy and heartfelt poetry of a Schubert song. Collon restrained the orchestra somewhat at moments where other conductors encourage rank abandon, but when the really big moments arrived, the sound Collon produced fairly knocked you out of your seat.

Not to be outdone by the FOMO’s use of two thunder sheets, the FRSO used two wind machines as well, a first in this listener’s extensive Alpine experience. The noise at the height of the storm suggested what it must be like standing behind a jet engine during take-off. Along with the 12 offstage horns, both orchestras boasted brass sections that proclaimed the stately “Mountain” motif each time with perfect intonation, ensemble, balance, and beauty of sound. These were performances to remember.

Nicholas Collon conducted the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, not shown here. (Photo by Jim Hinson)

Before intermission, the FOMO turned in a heavy-handed, routine performance of Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante, but the FRSO offered something special: the European premiere of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Third Violin Concerto (with Vadim Gluzman as soloist), a co-commission from the FRSO, the Gothenberg Symphony, and the Oregon Symphony. The FRSO was to have given the world premiere in 2020, but Covid thwarted that plan, resulting in the honor going to the American orchestra instead. James Bash covered this event in some detail for CVNA in January 2023.

In between Alpine peaks, I heard another pinnacle of the orchestral repertoire, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, performed on April 16 in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie by the visiting Munich Philharmonic. Daniel Harding showed himself a master at creating dynamic contrasts but failed to sustain momentum or to convey the score’s architecture (a problem he also had with the program’s opening number, Sibelius’ moody tone poem Tapiola). The first movement sounded more like a lumbering, lethargic shuffle than a funeral march. The second movement was loud, louder, loudest but lacked tension. The third churned on without purpose, the fourth failed to stir the soul, and the fifth sounded at times like circus music.

Here’s the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Ben Knabe)

That said, this was nevertheless one of the most thrilling Mahler Fifths I have heard, thanks to a superb orchestra, without doubt one of the best in the world. Every last string player pulls his or her weight. The notoriously precarious opening trumpet calls were played with total assurance; you sensed intuitively that they would be perfect. The horn solos in the Scherzo sounded like they were being delivered by an operatic tenor on steroids. Overall, it was the kind of performance for which you wanted to clap your hands raw — not for the conductor but for the orchestra.