Christian Thielemann clearly believes in Richard Strauss' once-derided "Alpensinfonie," and you don't need to read the conductor's comments in the liner notes to grasp that he revels in Strauss' orchestration. It's in delineating the many strands of the orchestral texture that Thielemann excels here, aided considerably by a fired-up Vienna Philharmonic (the brasses in particular are outstanding--such as the raspy trombones which are noticeably repressed in the Herbert von Karajan recording).
Thielemann's enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him, to the detriment of the work's structural integrity. Compared to Karajan or Rudolf Kempe, you're more aware listening to this CD that the piece moves from scene to scene. It isn't helped by his tendency to draw out the endings of phrases and sometimes slack off on the pace--effects which probably played better in concert than they do captured for posterity. However, the conductor's occasional missteps aren't enough to send the performance skidding back down the mountain.
What does threaten to jeopardize the expedition, though, is the recording job--a major consideration in a "blockbuster" work like this. The sense of scale and dynamic range are impressive, but there's a frustrating lack of "depth" and "presence" to the instruments. It's like listening to vividly detailed cardboard cutouts in a reverberant hall, instead of three-dimensional strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. The Amazon "editorial review" for this release gets it just right when referring to the sonics as "two-dimensional." The third dimension, the sense of "you are there" realism, that you get from well-recorded CDs (such as Andre Previn's Telarc disc of this piece with the same orchestra in the same hall) is utterly lacking here. Maybe the SACD version (which I haven't heard) imparts more presence, but in the standard CD format the spatial resolution is quite limited. Disappointing, coming from one of the world's major record labels.
Perhaps due to the misjudged engineering, a few of the details go awry: The distant "hunting horns" are TOO distant; the "cowbells" in the "mountain pasture" sequence don't sound at all natural; and the wind machine in the "thunderstorm and descent" is only sporadically audible.
Despite these technical slips (which may be less annoying to some), on the whole Thielemann ably takes us up the mountain and back down again, revealing features of the terrain we may not have been aware of before. Once we're back in the lowlands, Thielemann and Co. give us an equally idiomatic account of the 1945 "Rosenkavalier Suite" which was apparently assembled by the conductor Artur Rodzinski (with help, according to one story, from his assistant, Leonard Bernstein), rather than by the 80-year-old Strauss.