Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 [33:56]
Don Juan, Op. 20 [17:13]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 [14:52]
Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings [28:58]
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 [24:20]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. June and August, 1987 (CD1) and February 1989 (CD2), Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD050 [51:09 + 68:10]

These performances are classics. The Staatskapelle Dresden and conductor Herbert Blomstedt were one of the greatest artistic forces of the 1980s. This set of Richard Strauss tone poems was recorded at the peak of their collaboration. If they are not in your collection already, Dal Segno’s reduced price and ready availability leaves you no excuse.

These recordings were originally released by the Japanese label Denon, as part of a series from Dresden which also included Ein Heldenleben and two of the Bruckner symphonies. The Bruckner Seventh which resulted from this collaboration, recorded in 1980, is legendary among collectors: one could say that it is one of the greatest performances of anything ever to be caught on tape. Naturally, then, my expectations were high for this set, which has been licensed from Denon by way of Union Square Music.

Begin with the second disc: this program, of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Metamorphosen and Tod und Verklärung, features three of the great Strauss tone poems taken at rather more relaxed tempi than some listeners might be used to. Metamorphosen clocks in at 29 minutes, well over a minute faster than Herbert von Karajan’s classic Deutsche Grammophon reading with the Berlin Philharmonic. Although there are a few minutes early on where the music’s repetition becomes a bit too obvious, the last half of this tragic arc of melody is masterfully sculpted.

The broadly-paced Tod und Verklärung does not quite measure up to Rudolf Kempe’s achievement with the Staatskapelle Dresden a decade earlier, with its peerless combination of elegiac sorrow and dramatic tension. I particularly missed Kempe’s gripping control over the introduction and final coda; nevertheless, this Blomstedt reading remains one of the greats, with harrowing climaxes aided by great timpani and brass playing.

The other performances are even finer. Till Eulenspiegel is just about perfect, playful and mischievous, and Don Juan is given a fantastic performance too, with each successive entry of the opening motif more and more frantic than the last; great trumpets, too. The crowning achievement of this set, however, is of Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is frankly jaw-dropping, even in direct comparison to my reference versions: the 1974 Karajan/Berlin reading on DG Originals and Kempe’s 1971 performance with the Staatskapelle Dresden. I am honestly at a loss for words to describe this performance. Only a slight lack of assertiveness from the brass in the “Tanzlied” (track 8, at 7:00) made me miss Kempe for a second. Highlights include a general genius for transitions (especially from the climax of “Tanzlied” through to the hushed mood of the conclusion), glorious stereophonic brass in the Introduction, a clearly audible organ in “Von den Hinterweltern” and the wistful violin solos in the Night Wanderer’s song (track 9, at 1:41; I love the soloist’s hesitation at 1:51). The entire “Von der Wissenschaft” section is powerfully built, with a glacial pace and equally glacial sense of inevitability, from its quiet beginning up until the brass whip-crack which sets the orchestra delightfully alive. The entire second half strikes me as utterly perfect, and the orchestra really does sound, in this acoustic, like the best in the world. When it comes to Strauss tone poems, they are. No listener with a pulse could remain unaffected by music-making of this calibre.

In this Zarathustra the adjective ‘spectacular’ could easily be applied to the score, the orchestra, the life with which the players invest the music, and the Denon recording itself in equal measure. Here we have glorious playing preserved in a recording which at the time was state-of-the-art, and which, to all intents and purposes, remains so. It is hard to imagine any of the major labels today being able to replicate this set’s combination of acoustic clarity, impact and atmosphere. At the price Dal Segno is charging, and despite a typo or two on the back of the jewel case, this is a mandatory purchase.

One caveat: my review copy came with two-second gaps between each section of Zarathustra, often with ruinous consequences. Dal Segno assured me that this was a manufacturing defect, and that they had set it right as soon as they had learned about it. A replacement copy was sent free of charge. It is good to know that the art of fine customer service is still alive and well.

Brian Reinhart