The steepest climb in Paris is probably the walk up to Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre – or at least it feels like it to my knees. Strauss' Alpine Symphony is a more ambitious proposition, in which case having Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden as our guides is a shrewd move. Strauss dedicated his giant tone poem to the orchestra, and its current chief conductor is closely associated with the composer's music. Between them, they know this terrain like the back of their hand. At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, as part of a mini-European tour, the Alpine Symphony formed a bracing finale.

Renée Fleming © Andrew Eccles | Decca
Renée Fleming
© Andrew Eccles | Decca

However, the main attraction for the Parisian public, judging by the scattering of empty Stalls seats after the interval, was Renée Fleming performing the Four Last Songs. Strauss' swansongs, composed at the age of 84 and published together after his death, are a familiar Fleming calling card, fitting her smooth soprano like a glove. Her fabled honeyed tone was present from the start, as well as the half sighs and swoons that are occasionally employed to glide from note to note. Consonants are much more in evidence than at the start of her career, even though she doesn't exactly do a great deal with the text. It's the voice that counts though, and I could forgive her most things. Frühling was ecstatic, September full of nostalgia at the line “Wondering, faintly, summer smiles”. Fleming clearly revels in this music, stepping back during Matthias Wollong's heavenly violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen, almost shaking her head in disbelief. Her own echo, on the words “Flügeln schweben” soared effortlessly.

Thielemann, beaming like a schoolboy, was clearly in his element. Fleming's soprano isn't exactly large and he spent much of the performance keeping a lid on the Staatskapelle, urging them to hush up and listen. They played like a dream though, from the autumnal horn postlude in September to the gently trilling piccolo at the close of Im Abendrot, as the larks flutter and dart across the sky.

After a carefully calibrated sunrise, the Staatskapelle launched into its mountain ascent after the interval with great vigour. Finally allowed off the leash by Thielemann, it devoured the landscape, taking in gushing waterfalls and flowering meadows until the clatter of cowbells announced our arrival on Alpine pastures. The virtuosic sheen of the Dresden strings impressed, as did the absolute tonal security of the brass – always reassuring on this most perilous of orchestral treks. We slipped on the glacier and lost our footing but, in Thielemann and the Dresdners, we were in safe hands. The venue didn't always show the orchestra off to best advantage, sapping the louder proclamations such as the joyful moment when we reached the summit or the terror of the thunderstorm on the way back down. As the decibels rose, the orchestra sounded cramped just when you wanted it to open up to full throttle.

It didn't deter Thielemann's purposeful approach though, ploughing on with great determination. After a glowing sunset brought this orchestral epic to a close, he seemed genuinely enthused, bounding onto the rostrum as if he wanted to do it all over again. 

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