The Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Andris Nelsons have programmed Richard Strauss' An Alpine Symphony exactly 100 years after its world premiere – yet they were not the orchestra which performed the premiere of the work. Neither was it Berlin's Königliche Hofkapelle, whose general music director at the time was Strauss himself. It was in fact the Dresden Hofkapelle, today the Staatskapelle Dresden, that gave the first public performance of the work on 28 October 1915. A musical event of the highest order, which the music world, as a result of press releases and advertisements, had long been looking forward to. There was for example a brief note in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik as early as April 1914 that Richard Strauss, after correcting the score of the Josephslegende, would again devote himself to An Alpine Symphony “whose sketches he hopes to complete by autumn. He intends writing the orchestral score in Berlin during the coming winter.” The premiere was expected to be given the following year.
In the crossfire of the critics
“Bluff and publicity are what make a new work by the fashionable composer of the day such a sensation”, wrote the Berlin correspondent of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in his review of the first performance. “And the bluff is a double one: Firstly, there is no real reason why the Dresden Hofkapelle had come to Berlin for the event when our own Philharmoniker are more than capable of undertaking such tasks; and secondly, admission prices were increased to fifteen and twenty marks.” However, the Dresden orchestra, which had premiered Strauss' operatic successes Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, knew exactly why An Alpine Symphony, which was dedicated to them, was being presented in the Berlin Philharmonie in Bernburger Straße: Unlike venues in Dresden, this concert hall had a large concert organ. As late as June 1915, Strauss had pointed out in a letter to the Dresden Kapellmeister Hermann Kutzschbach that “in the storm, a large full concert organ [is] a key requirement”. Critics ridiculed An Alpine Symphony as an orchestral deception, while the general public was impressed by its power and the striking, musical descriptions of nature. Despite the World War, performances were given in all major German cities.
The fabulous Arthur Nikisch
Arthur Nikisch, head of both the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker, first conducted the symphonic poem in Leipzig. He only included the work in the programme of Philharmoniker concerts on 4 December 1916. Although Berlin audiences had already had the opportunity by that time to hear the work not only by the Dresden, but also by the Königliche Hofkapelle, it was a concert event that “nobody who is 'up to date' and has the money could miss” (Signale für die musikalische Welt). Thanks to Nikisch's interpretation, there was much new and surprising to discover. “When he wields the baton, everything in a tone poem is even more vivid and colourful. That is simply the precious secret of this conductor.” (Signale).
The Berliner Philharmoniker performed the work a total of ten times in the years following, until the old Philharmonie was destroyed in 1945. In the 1980s, Herbert von Karajan programmed An Alpine Symphony in Philharmoniker concerts exactly the same number of times. He and Arthur Nikisch were previously the only chief conductors who performed this work with the Philharmoniker. All performances of An Alpine Symphony were presented by guest conductors, including Richard Strauss, Erich Kleiber, Joseph Keilberth, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Mariss Jansons, Bernard Haitink, Christian Thielemann and most recently in December 2008, Semyon Bychkov. Berlin audiences now have the opportunity to hear the work on three successive occasions in the Berlin Philharmonie performed by three renowned orchestras: the Berlin Staatskapelle, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.