Strauss was a child prodigy, already composing extensively throughout his teens. Although he composed in most genres, the early part of his career was notable for his orchestral works, and this is the period from which most of the famous symphonic poems emerged, often calling upon large orchestral forces. He then moved his emphasis to opera, and it was after one of his later and most famous operas, Der Rosenkavalier, that he returned to compose one of his greatest, and certainly his longest, "symphonic poems" - the Alpine Symphony (it is notable that after the first performance, Strauss commented "now I have finally learned how to orchestrate". It is also notable that Strauss never had any extensive formal training in music!) Enough on context, let's examine this wonderful performance.
Strauss specified an orchestra of 135 to 150 players, with about 20 forming an off-stage ensemble, basically brass, plus extensive percussion and a pipe organ. But he only uses the full forces at times; he mainly wanted these forces to allow an extensive coloristic canvas.
Before going any further, let's dispel a couple of myths. The work is seen by most listeners (and quite a few CD booklet writers, AND the official Amazon reviewer) as a tone poem consisting of a large number of linked episodes, claiming it should not be called a symphony. While there is no denying the episodic nature of this programmatic work, study by some musicologists has revealed a loose but definite underlying four-movement symphonic structure. This is subtle and it is more common to identify six symphonic sections. The main point is that there exists an underlying, musically unifying, symphonic structure. Strauss fully knew what he was doing when he called this work a Symphony.
Throughout the work, Strauss identified various points with markers, to help correlate the "story" with the music. These are not intended to separate the music into sections, in the way the separate movements of a symphony are identified, or even the 'numbers' of a ballet (although it is coming closer in this case), are defined, especially relevant when the movements of such works are linked. Consequently, there is a level of arbitrariness in identifying these markers. Currently available recordings show anything between 17 and 25 such reference points, with 22 being the most popular number, (with Strauss's own performance electing to indicate 20 such reference points). The 22 reference points indicated on this recording are completely consistent with other similarly annotated recordings, which is quite correct according to the score.
Enough of the lecture!
Turning to the performance, I was most pleasantly surprised. Until now, for me the best performance in relatively modern sound, is the Kempe/Dresden recording from the 70s, later transferred to CD. It always had good sonics, doing justice to an outstanding performance. Since then, some nice performances have come along; good interpretations; good orchestral playing and good engineering. But they have all lacked one thing - the recognition of the subtle underlying cohesiveness of the piece. There has been a tendency to play it as an orchestral showpiece, and nothing more, and so missing some very subtle added depth to make even more of the performance. For me, the Zinman/Zurich Tonhalle version, excellently played and recorded by BMG and released under their Arte Nova label (initially in 20003, then withdrawn, then they realized their mistake and issued it again in 2006), is one of the few performances that has come close to penetrating the full depths of this composition.
Now comes this performance. I have been familiar with Wit's work for many years, and have admired him as an intelligent interpreter, well skilled at penetrating the depths of the work, and well able to control the forces under his command. He plays this work with a clear perception of it as a whole, that is, as a unified, symphonic work, written in the form of linked programmatic episodes. The difference is slight, but recognition of the unifying musical structure gives added strength to the performance. It is still a showpiece, but now we hear a showpiece with some substance (remember, Strauss considered it to be amongst has best achievements).
The big surprise was the orchestra. They play like a top-rank international body, only with a greater sense of musicality than we often now hear from some of the big names. Strings have a lovely warm, silken sheen, the French horns almost made me think of that section on the Vienna Phil when it was at its peak; I give these as examples. As has been mentioned by others, high-quality playing by the brass is needed, and it is delivered. And when the entire orchestra comes together, it is clear that they listen to each other, producing an excellent ensemble sound. But, of course, this work depends on excellent solo playing too, especially from the woodwind. And again, they deliver.
One would need to strive very hard to find an odd place where a minor criticism could be offered. and to do so would be churlish amongst such riches. This ranks among the best available performances. To say which is the best is a personal thing, so I will leave that to the individual. But I can certainly recommend this for your consideration, especially as it is complemented by excellent engineering,something not uncommon with Naxos these days.(Naxos has delivered slightly better sound on a few releases, but they were mainly engineered for audiophile release as an SACD, a format they have decided to discontinue), but still a high standard exists, and the metering on my system shows a normal recording level, reaching a quite adequate dB level on the peaks (despite the comments of a couple of reviewers: perhaps they have been misled by the unusually wide dynamic range). If you are after a recording of this work, make sure this is on your list. One final point: at 54 minutes, it does seem as if the disk could do with a filler. But as the piece fades into the dusk, to have the mood shattered a few seconds later by something else would only spoil things. And remember, it is at a bargain price.
EDIT: I have just completed some further research on this release, and it is very clear that an extremely large number of top critics around the world consider this the best version currently available. So far, I have not found one expert arguing against this opinion, and the bonus of the Gramophone giving it an Editor's Choice award can only give added weight to this reception. But one must allow for different tastes, and some might prefer a slightly different interpretation. There is really no other aspect of this release that is open to criticism.