Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra
A selective discographical survey by Ralph Moore

Having surveyed virtually all of Richard Strauss’ major operas and tone poems, I have until now postponed tackling Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1896). My reluctance was based on apparently contradictory reasons: the first recording was made by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra as long ago as 1935 and the sheer profusion of recordings made since renders any attempt to be comprehensive too daunting, yet the work’s fame, enhanced by its featuring so often in popular entertainment – beginning with the use of its fanfare in the stunning opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, lifted from Karajan’s first studio recording* – means that everyone already has a favourite recording. What is the point of an exhaustive survey when  “we all already know” that the best is the second of Karajan’s three studio versions? But hang on; is it perhaps the first stereophonic recording made by Fritz Reiner in 1954 – or his remake in 1962? All three are analogue, and good as they are, surely a more recent digital account will be sonically superior and thus more desirable in a work which above all demands spectacular sound engineering? Furthermore, despite the general acknowledgement that Reiner’s and Karajan’s constitute the “reference recordings”, I have been struck by the number of “learned musical friends” who have nominated as their favourites over Karajan recordings by Maazel – both with the VPO and the BRSO (see below) – and Previn, again with the VPO – and in certain moods I prefer the two earlier of Eugene Ormandy’s three versions over them all – so perhaps a final choice is not quite so clear cut.

It is also a piece which everybody thinks they know, but that supposed familiarity is often based on acquaintance only with the magnificent opening fanfare “Sonnenaufgang” (Sunrise); there are, after all, eight more succeeding sections in a work which typically lasts thirty-three or thirty-four minutes, so a hierarchy cannot be based solely on the success of the first two minutes. (Outliers in timings are Solti at thirty-one minutes and Bychkov and Sinopoli at thirty-seven; no surprises there, then.)  However, it is interesting how the execution of that spectacular dawning varies in recordings. After the grumbling three-note figure of a low-C rising a fifth to G then to top C, signalling the “Nature motif”, there is a little accented semiquaver/sixteenth note E before the E-flat. Some conductors emphasise and elongate it, so we hear “DAH-daaah”, whereas others, like Karajan and Tennstedt, are more faithful to the letter of the score and we hear a much shorter E with almost equal weight on the two notes, or even just flicked. Strauss certainly makes it shorter in his recordings, whereas Blomstedt and Sinopoli depart from the score and to my ears overdo it. Is this a deal-breaker? Probably not – but only Karajan faithfully adheres to what Strauss wrote, and he seems to have come to that decision after his first recording, as in the 1959 version those two notes are decidedly more equally weighted – whereas Ormandy in his three recordings went in the other direction, so by 1975 he is giving more emphasis to what is essentially almost a grace note. I refer to this issue in almost every assessment below; perhaps I am being too obsessive in according it such key importance – but the fanfare is the key feature of the work as a whole and sets the tone, so its treatment by conductors deserves our attention.

That introduction might indeed be the best of the music – in fact, some consider that Strauss failed to capitalise upon its promise in the subsequent development and nothing in the rest of the work lives up to the opening, condemning it is as bitty, fragmented and the least successful of Strauss’ tone poems. That is not a view I in the least subscribe to and clearly some very eminent conductors have also esteemed the work highly, but I recognise that some consider its episodic nature to constitute  weaknesses in its structure.

In addition to considering established classics by such as Reiner and Karajan, I have also tried to include for comparison more celebrated versions which do justice to the work as a whole, and even if my selection is inescapably somewhat arbitrary, I hope that a total of thirty recordings is still a fairly representative sample – although I will inevitably have omitted someone’s favourite and I am usually advised of that by readers. I have not included Clemens Krauss’ version for reasons of poor sound and although Karl Böhm was peerless in Strauss’ operas, his stabs at the tone poems were decidedly hit and miss, so he does not feature below. Several conductors have recorded it more than once, so I have assessed their recordings comparatively as a group.

Strauss wrote shortly after the premiere, “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.” Hence, both over-intellectualisation and over-emoting are perhaps inadvisable, but modern listeners probably demand more overt emotional involvement than Strauss’ objectivity displays. One or two recordings surveyed below fail to do so and adopt a more “Boulezian” manner and some commentators have expressed the view that “histrionics” in the performance of this work are vulgar; I beg to differ. I always become sceptical and even a little apprehensive when a conductor’s interpretative stance in a Strauss tone poem is praised because it “avoids vulgarity” or “favours musical line over splashy effects”, because there is surely no other music which so triumphantly validates the maxim “nothing succeeds like excess”. I want grand gestures, a Big Band sound and the ear-assaulting tsunami of sound generated by the combined efforts of a hundred or more orchestral instruments in concert. This is why, as much as I admire and esteem Kempe’s Strauss, I sometimes find it to be a tad too polite and under-stated for my taste and default to Karajan, Maazel, Ormandy and their ilk.

 I must also confess that I found the following statement in a Gramophone survey of the work to be pretentious: “It would be intriguing to know how many conductors approaching the piece bother to read Nietzsche’s book, because the sound and rhythms of his prose are as important to Strauss’s composition as the musical notation.” Really? I am intrigued by – indeed sceptical about – the assertion that a conductor needs to – or indeed can – invest the musical line with cadences of an author’s prose and have not let such fanciful ideas burden my assessment of a recording’s worth. Although I have a nodding acquaintance with its contents, I have not myself read Nietsche’s novel, nor do I have any intention of doing so – and I somehow doubt whether that omission materially handicaps my ability to assess recordings of it any more than it prevents anyone’s appreciation of the music. The main criterion seems to be that to which I refer above: should a performance be cool and analytical or hot and heavy? – and that is merely a question of taste.

* Karajan’s 1959 version with the Vienna Philharmonic was used in the film, but not credited (Decca did not want it cheapened by association); upon the film’s success Decca released a new printing “as heard in 2001”, but MGM, in its soundtrack LP, used Karl Böhm’s DG version with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The recordings:

First, two recordings made by the composer himself:

Strauss/Wiener Philharmoniker 1942, Music & Arts, mono
Strauss/Wiener Philharmoniker 1944, Preiser/Membran/Berlin Classics/ Documents, live mono

Strauss’ own recording in 1944 is obviously of great historical interest and better known than that of 1942, which is included as part of a two CD set from the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv. Even though the later recording  was made on the then new technology of magnetic tape, the frequent blare and peaking means it cannot be a “library recommendation”, although it is naturally devoid of the flaws inherent in the 78rpm technology of the earlier recording which is somewhat remote and crackly, with thumping and swishing, and moments where the volume drops alarmingly; it is, however, in some ways better than the more familiar 1944 version in terms of both sound and execution. Furthermore, the opening in 1942 is decidedly sharper than that of two years later; indeed the start of the 1944 recording is a bit slack and sloppy, the brass being not quite together or on the beat. In both recordings, the bank of horns is not on a par with those of later crack orchestras but there is a swelling, Romantic spirit to the playing of “Von der großen Sehnsucht” (Of the Great Longing) and some more beautiful playing in the “Nachtwandlerlied” in both recordings. Strauss’ conducting is often cited as being of the “no-nonsense; let the music speak for itself” school but there is no lack of passion or release in the central “Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften” section. The bells in the final passage are good. Both recordings are available on YouTube so you may sample them and decide which, if either, you prefer, but they must surely only be supplements to a modern recording.

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Karajan had a long and dominant association with the work of Strauss; it makes sense to consider his recordings as a group, as his interpretative stance was consistent:

Herbert von Karajan/Wiener Philharmoniker 1959 Decca, stereo

Karajan chose this as his first recording for Decca, indicating his attachment to the piece, and it has endured as a classic despite its relative antiquity. There is some minimal background hiss and tape flutter but sonically it as held up very well despite some evidence of splicing. The opening fanfare displays his trademark respect for Strauss’ markings and there is already a sense of rapt concentration in the delivery: line, legato and lusciousness of tone are all in evidence and there is a sweep to the “Sehnsucht” passage which is captivating. The recording was made in the Sofiensaal, while the organ, played by Ray Minshull was recorded in the Wiener Neustadt military chapel and dropped in later – not that you would be aware of that. It is evident that Karajan is already master of the moods and sonorities of the score: the Viennese lilt of the “Tanzlied” is captivating and the drive of the transitional section into the “Nachtwandlerlied” is ideal, enhanced by the sonority of the proper church bells Karajan insisted upon, before a coda of great delicacy, its hovering between two disparate keys indicative of the ambivalence of Nietsche’s philosophical stance. Had Karajan not surpassed this in 1973, it would have stood as a benchmark,

Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker 1970 Testament, live stereo

By 1970 Karajan had decided to further sharpen up the semiquaver quasi-grace-note in the fanfare and had refined his interpretation with greater dynamic and tempo contrasts between sections and an even more impressive sense of over-arching control.

Interestingly, the live sound is in many ways more striking than the studio-engineered recording three years later. There is a bit of ambient noise and tape hiss but virtually no evidence of an audience and clearly compression is minimal, the dynamic contrasts are so stark. The acoustic is not as plush as that of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche so detail is more apparent and high-flying passages are penetrating without being strident. The contributions of the wonderfully talented bevy of instrumental soloists in the BPO emerge so vividly – especially Michel Schwalbé’s solo violin playing, closely miked – and the sheen on the ensemble playing is captivating. There is enormous power at climaxes – not “studio-engineered” but real; the playing absolutely sparkles in “Der Genesende”, “Das Tanzlied” is sly, slinky and seductive and the “Nachtwanderlied” is beautifully shaded and detailed; the only drawback is the lack of a properly sonorous low E bell of the kind we hear at the beginning of that movement in the studio recordings – a tinny tubular bell just doesn’t do it. Nonetheless, it must have been quite an experience to have been in the audience.

This is in almost every department as successful as the famous 1973 studio recording – in fact, even more thrilling at climaxes, if not quite as sonically sumptuous.

Karajan/ Berliner Philharmoniker 1973 DG, stereo

This is one of those demonstration discs in which everything – sonics, interpretation, execution – is right, from the massive solidity of the opening organ rumble through the gradually swelling trumpet fanfare over thunderous timpani to the glorious sustained tutti and on through eight more section in which every nuance is faithfully executed and exploited. Despite the power of the playing, it is those little details in phrasing and dynamics which make the listener catch his or her breath – and the sheer beauty of the BPO in full flight is unparalleled. Nothing is rushed but nothing drags; Michel Schwalbé repeats his matchless solo waltz and you feel as if you are hearing the result of a flawless symbiotic rapport shared by composer, conductor and orchestra. It is hard to select highlights when so much is so striking: the shimmering of the flutes and upper strings in “Von der Wissenschaft”? The power of the build up from the start of “Der Genesende”  to the climax at 1:21? The lilting charm of “Das Tanzlied”? The brilliance of the playing completely masks – or perhaps rather negates – any suspicion of structural weaknesses in the music itself, the transitions between sections are so artfully managed. That empathy is further enhanced by the warmth of the famous recording acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche Dahlem – like the Philharmonie, it may be a hideous building but its sonics go a long way towards compensating for its aesthetic deficiencies.

This is as close to a perfect recording as has ever been issued.

Karajan/ Berliner Philharmoniker 1983 DG digital

Karajan’ final remake has had a generally bad press; part of that must be due to invidious comparisons with its flawless predecessor. It did not help that Karajan’s hearing was in decline just when he was insisting upon taking charge of the mixing console and as a result his digital issues suffered from glaring upper frequencies and odd balances. Much of that was remedied by subsequent remixing after his demise and there is still great beauty in the BPO’s playing. For a start, the opening is virtually as impressive as its predecessors: the aforementioned accented semiquaver by the brass in the fanfare is now short and punchy – really in time, while most conductors lengthen and accentuate it. Soon, however, a rather ponderous, laboured sense of self-consciousness spreads a pall over the whole and the sense of spontaneity is lost; there are passages when it simply sounds sluggish rather than rapt, particularly in “Von der Wissenschaft”. There are still many things to admire, especially towards the end of the work when things go much better; the climax in “Der Genesende” at 1:34 is stupendous and the crucial midnight bells are again imposing – no tin trays banged together here. In general, however, this account is somewhat heavier going. “Das Tanzlied”, for example, is a bit draggy and short on charm. In their 2011 5 CD Karajan Strauss box, DG perversely chose it over the analogue account, presumably because it was digital and the most recent, but when the big LP-sized tribute was issued three years later they had wisely reverted to the 1973 version in addition to the 1959 recording – a tacit acknowledgement of the superiority of both over the digital one. If Karajan had made no other recording, this would be highly prized – but he did.

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Fritz Reiner knew and worked with the composer, so I guess I can hardly demur at his choice of giving each of the two notes of that contentious opening blast almost equal measure. I am comparing here his two “Living Stereo” studio versions – the 1954 version was the first recording of the work in that medium – and the later re-make.

Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra 1954 RCA/Pristine Audio/HDTT, stereo
Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra 1962 RCA, stereo

Reiner already enjoyed excellent, early, two-channel stereo sound in 1954, and the RCA remastering was glowingly reviewed here and here back in 2004. Pristine subsequently treated it to its XR Remastering process and it was this issue which my colleague John Quinn again very positively reviewed  in 2014, pronouncing it henceforth his favourite version. I myself last year reviewed the single disc RCA Victor issue which is also available as part of the 5 CD Reiner RCA/Sony box set and here quote from that review: “These ‘Living Stereo’ recordings have always been of high quality both aesthetically and sonically… Hiss is minimal and there is no peakiness or harshness on loud, high notes, with a minimum of congestion in ensemble. The performance itself of Also sprach Zarathustra is simply stunning – one to match and sit proudly alongside Karajan’s BPO version, or Ormandy with the Philadelphians in 1975, or Previn with the VPO, or Maazel with the BRSO or…the list of great recordings goes on, and I can only assert that anyone experiencing this music for the first time via this recording will not be short-changed.. Reiner has his crack band – especially the celebrated brass section – really let rip, but despite his reputation for drive and rigour – similar to Solti’s – he is as lyrical as any interpreter in the “Dance” and “Night” song sections (penultimate track) and the “Night Wanderer’s Song”, which brings this mighty score to a close, is mysterious and hieratic.”

Let me add a few more comments. Our founder Len Mullenger recently took the remastered RCA issue to the MusicWeb Listening Room meeting and was newly amazed at the quality of the sound: “The strings are silky, the brass crisp and the only giveaway [of its age is] the rather tubby bass.” Like JQ, I listened to the Pristine XR Remastering and it is even better: rounder, fuller, deeper, more defined and virtually devoid of hiss; it really is extraordinary when I think that the recording is as old as I am. It is true that the highlighting of individual instruments is rather “technicolor” and a such does not really try to re-create the experience of a live concert but it makes such satisfying listening. The drive, sweep and dynamic range of “Joys and Passions”, for example, are overwhelming and the gravitas of the “Wissenschaft” section is striking, contrasting strongly with the release of the impassioned passages. Any reservations? The stabbing chords at the climax of “Der Genesende” (The Convalescent) lack the intensity of exponents such as Karajan and some previous reviewers have complained that the organ is marginally out of tune; I can’t say that much bothers me. Otherwise, this is a triumph, as long as you don’t mind what is arguably the “spotlighting” of instruments.

Furthermore, HDTT has released its own remastering. Hiss and rumble are minimal despite HDTT’s caveat and the definition and dynamic range are very impressive. I cannot imagine anyone being other than delighted by it and to my ears it is superior to the RCA issue – which itself is by no means bad. Both this and the Pristine version are highly recommendable.

Is the later recording superior?  Well, the opening low C on the organ is somehow more centred and defined – more identifiably in tune, I concede – but otherwise one wonders why Reiner and RCA saw the need to re-record. Presumably they thought that the stereo technology had sufficiently advanced to justify a remake  but they were wrong, Furthermore, Reiner was in ill-health – he died the following year – and hasn’t the grip he previously imposed. This performance is more relaxed than the earlier recording, its duration being 34 as opposed to 32 minutes and I am not sure that is to its advantage; just occasionally it sounds a little slack – not a failing I ever associate with Reiner – and I miss some of the drive ever-present in 1954. Even the sound overall sounds rather more homogenised – more “naturalistic”, perhaps, but not as exciting. My preference remains decidedly with that first landmark recording.

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The ever-under-rated Eugene Ormandy made three recordings:

Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra 1963 Sony, stereo
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra 1975 RCA stereo/Dutton SACD
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra 1979 EMI, stereo

One can rarely go wrong with this conductor and orchestra; at their worst they are merely good but at their best they are electric. They were always given excellent sound and their playing rivalled the BPO for sumptuousness; in many ways it hardly matters which of these three recordings you choose but I am particularly taken by the second, re-issued in a superb remastering by Dutton which I made one of my Records of the Year in 2020. I quote from that glowing review:

“For this recording Ormandy had the Rodgers Touring Organ wheeled into the Scottish Rite Cathedral… The opening deep C natural – evidently greatly enhanced by the remastering – is stupendous and everything after that proceeds swimmingly. The famous, lush tone of the Philadelphian strings – the only band really to rival the BPO in its heyday – is an absolute treat for the ears and Ormandy doesn’t rush them, but lets the orchestra glide over those long melodic lines. The brass is equally impressive. Concertmaster Norman Carol is superb in “Das Tanzlied”; although the orchestral playing is mostly liquid gold, his deliberately raw, vivacious attack in his “Zigeuner” solo forms the perfect foil. The surround-sound and separation are so vivid, even on conventional equipment, that you can hear the occasional bow or valve click and it’s like being in the front row of a live performance and being enveloped in the glorious noise which is Strauss in full-fat mode as a hundred-plus virtuoso musicians play their hearts out. The ambivalent ending with its unresolved B major/C major clash is, paradoxically, deeply satisfying.”

Having said that, I enjoy almost as much the earlier recording which despite slightly more cramped sound has a drive and coherence which really sweeps the listener along; furthermore, as I remark above, Ormandy delivers the sharpest opening fanfare there but relaxes somewhat for the two subsequent recordings. The second reading is slightly more leisurely and sonically more sophisticated; that is immediately noticeable right from the extraordinary resonance of the opening low C on the organ – it is only when you directly compare the two that you realise what is missing in the Sony “Essential Classics” issue. Furthermore, the midnight bells are the best in the catalogue. In 1979, Ormandy made a third studio recording with EMI; it is fine but exhibits no special qualities, either sonically or aesthetically, which are not already present in abundance in the two previous versions. The sound is a little tubbier and less impactful – rather disappointing, in fact – but the brass is too prominent. Ormandy elongates the two notes in the fanfare a little more and the orchestra sounds more removed. I do not sense the same energy which infuses the earlier recordings. Having said, the playing is still admirable and Ormandy has by no means slowed down his interpretation – but this is a classic case of the best being the enemy of the good.

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Maazel made three studio recordings and the two I mention above are highly regarded by some of my acquaintance (I am not familiar with the earliest one he made with the Philharmonia in 1962):

Lorin Maazel/Wiener Philharmoniker 1983, Deutsche Grammophon live digital
Lorin Maazel/Symphonieorchester des Bayersichen Rundfunks 1995, RCA/BMG digital

Maazel was a great Strauss conductor and both of these recordings are first rate. The venue of the Herkulessaal for the later recording is a renowned venue sonically but there is a real sense of depth and space around the live DG recording  the only noticeable difference being that the low C on the organ is not as well tuned as it is for RCA and the note is slightly less present; Maazel also clips the sixteenth note a little more in the earlier reading – but there’s not much in it and I really am hard-pushed to distinguish between them. However, I think the RCA version has the edge for immediacy – hardly surprising, perhaps, given that it is a studio recording made over three days. Timings and delivery are similar; Maazel’s approach is full-on Romantic, leisurely, swooning with a big build-up to climaxes and a noble, majestic demeanour. The bass drum is a tad more percussive for RCA and the horns more strident – again, probably as a result of the mixing. I would like a little more propulsion and urgency in “Von den Hinterweltlern” with the BRSO but I admire Maazel’s patience, control and the sense of proportion among sections he maintains and there is no shortage of forward motion in “Joys and Passions” or the “Science” movement – but here the sheer weight of the VPO trumps the BRSO in both. Having said that, the cleaner, fuller sound of the BMG/RCA recording pays dividends and both the BRSO and their concert leader soloist sound freer and more engaging than the rather more serious Rainer Küchl and the VPO in the “Dance” section. The midnight bells are disappointingly obscured in the Vienna recording whereas in Munich they are more audible. In short, comparison between the two recordings is a “swings and roundabouts” exercise and both are praiseworthy as “Full-fat Strauss” – but neither is my absolute top choice.

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Herbert Blomstedt/Dresden Staatskapelle 1987, Denon/Dal Segno digital
Herbert Blomstedt/San Fancisco Symphony 1995, Decca digital

I reviewed the latter in 2021 and made some comparison with the earlier recording; the following observations include edited comments lifted from that review. I am generally a great Blomstedt fan but to my surprise am disappointed by the San Francisco reading: to my ears it somewhat slack and anonymous. On first hearing, the famous low C fanfare opening lacks for little in majesty, but the Dresden recording has greater depth, considerably more sonic clarity and essentially more gravitas. Then in San Francisco the long, winding melody which ensues sounds too refined, too tender with little internal tension of the kind Karajan provides. Yes; it is simply heavenly playing but not very involving. If, as a previous critic has observed, Blomstedt is primarily concerned with music line over aural impact, then this is at the expense of drama; I want and need the “showstopper” element of the kind Ormandy excelled in producing and Blomstedt’s preparation for the orchestral climaxes seems pusillanimous. That is why Ormandy’s recording was one of my Records of the Year in 2020 while Blomstedt’s San Francisco version would not get a look in; it is short on bite and definition, a failing not helped by the broad, booming acoustic and the soft timpani, whose sticks lack penetration.

Brian Wilson was enthusiastic about the Dresden recording in his review of 2010, and I have taken the liberty of quoting him quite extensively, as I agree with his observations. He describes it as “frankly jaw-dropping, even in direct comparison to my reference versions….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.”

I agree with all of this but have one reservation: the accented E in the opening “DAAH-DAH” is absurdly etiolated and overdone – and while we are talking about only one fleeting moment here, it is for me a blot.

BW also praised the sound engineering (originally by Denon): “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.”

So there you have it; if you want Blomstedt and do not share my aversion to that opening, his earlier recording is the one to have.

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Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra 1975, Decca stereo

The standard accusation by Solti’s critics is that he is invariably, too fast, hard-driven and insensitive and the celerity of this recording at under 31 minutes would seem to support that. Furthermore, he does not pass my fanfare test, as he gives almost equal weight to the accented semiquaver – clumsy – and takes it rather too fast. On the other hand, the Chicago brass and timpani excel themselves – but then Solti again takes the ensuing lyrical passage rather briskly instead of luxuriating in the orchestral textures. There is no doubting that he and the CSO make a nice sound – but it strikes me as rather heartless and functional – even superficial; I do not feel involved or drawn in by their manner; in fact, I rather feel as if I am being propelled along a conveyor belt of “great moments” without much time to enjoy the experience. Transitions between sections are swift and glossed over; unlike the Steinberg recording, which is similarly fast but integrated and coherent, Solti’s just sounds rushed and messy. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference but I sense it; perhaps it is in the phrasing, as Solti never seems to let the orchestra take a breath. The waltz section is utterly charmless. His Heldenleben is superb but his Alpensinfonie was similarly a misfire; I am generally a Solti fan, but in this case, again – nope.

Zubin Mehta/Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Decca 1968 , stereo

I generally love all Mehta’s early Strauss recordings with the LAPO and this is no exception – and even though the opening fanfare does really pass my test, the organ, bass drum and orchestral sonority are all impressive; what a simply lovely Hollywood glow they give the yearning main theme of the “Backworldsmen”. The playing is free, rhapsodic and soaring throughout and even if the 60s analogue sound isn’t as vivid as the digital competition, Decca’s superb engineering still falls gratefully on the ear. The double-basses and cellos moan and grumble delightfully in “Von der Wissenschaft, then the upper strings glitter and cascade like a rainbow spray – as with Reiner, the visual concept of Technicolor comes to mind. It’s not all soupy cinematic lushness – Mehta generates real momentum and the climax of “Der Genesende” at 1:25 really delivers. We may be a long way from Vienna in California but in “Das Tanzlied” all those European immigrés musicians transport us to the Old World and David Frisna‘s violin solo is among one of the most authentic: grainy, a touch louche, Zigeuner-influenced. The transition into “Das Nachtwandlerlied” is riotous and even if the chime bars used to replicate the big bronze bells sounding midnight lack some upper-frequency penetration there is still plenty of orchestral impact and the conclusion is suitably gnomic as we float indecisively between the two mutually antagonistic keys. Lacking the brilliance of a digital sound this might not be first choice but it must rank high.

Rudolf Kempe/Dresden Staatskapelle 1971 EMI, stereo

Kempe was always a sensitive, thoughtful and refined conductor – in some ways similar to Haitink – which explains why the fanfare is just that bit too soft and restrained with equal weight given to the E and E flat. Compensations are soon apparent in the detail and lyricism of the playing here; Kempe always valued transparency and brings out individual orchestral lines, such as with the cohort of cellos in the opening tune of “Von den Hinterweltlern”, and he launches into “Von der großen Sehnsucht” with real sweep and drive, assisted by a swifter tempi than most and, of course, superb playing from an orchestra always associated with Strauss. The all-important climax to “Der Genesende” is thunderous and he also finds a subtly demonic, threatening quality in the darker passages without dragging. The concluding midnight bells section certainly does not suffer from any lack of passion and power and the ambiguous coda is meltingly played.

The EMI sound is very good with just a hint of tubbiness about it – and it’s not exactly naturalistic; balances are fine as long as you don’t mind a certain prominence being given to instruments – but that matches Kempe’s predilection for bringing out prominent musical lines. I place this recording in the second, “very good” category alongside those by Haitink, Tennstedt and Mehta.

William Steinberg/Boston Symphony Orchestra 1971, Deutsche Grammophon, stereo

John Quinn enthusiastically reviewed this in 2018 and as ever I refer you to his review for many insights. Once I have got over the fact that Steinberg executes the fanfare with an equally weighted DUM-DAH, the resonance of the organ consoles me and from then on everything about this recording pleases: beautiful playing from the BSO and wide-open sound, in an acoustic with so much air around it that it positions the listener mid-way-back in the concert hall. It is something of a departure from the kind of studio engineering which highlights individual instruments – perhaps unnaturally – but suggests a sense of scale and grandeur which is very apt for this music, even if I am sometimes miss the “in yer face” immediacy of those arguably more artificial but undeniably involving studio accounts.

The other issue is the propulsion of Steinberg’s characteristically febrile direction; at thirty minutes he is the fastest here. It’s a heck of a ride, though and the virtuosity of the BSO counteracts any hint of orchestral discombobulation – they are wholly up to Steinberg’s demands. It’s breathless, different – and thrilling. Bandmaster Joseph Silverstein is a cavalier soloist – in the right sense: a seductive swashbuckler. Listening to it is like an amphetamine rush (I’m told!); the performers must surely have enjoyed executing it thus and over fifty years later we can share in that euphoria. Having said that, the lyrical passages of the concluding section are still sweetly seductive; Silverstein’s and his fellow violinists’ playing from around two minutes on is ethereal and the ending is magical.

This is something of an outlier which was new to me but I have since learned that it is many people’s favourite and I can see why, 

Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouworkest 1973 Philips, stereo

I am never quite sure what to expect with Haitink but this was a very pleasant surprise – a very solid opening with imposing timpani and magnificent brass in deep, warm, vibrant sound. The analogue sonics from Philips here are some of the best of the era and the playing is tender, voluptuous and impassioned by turns – and always underpinned by such rich bass resonance. The Big Tune beginning a minute into “Von den Hinterweltlern” is lovingly caressed; there is a purring, Rolls-Royce luxuriance about the playing of the Concertgebouworkest here which rivals virtually any other orchestra, including Karajan’s BPO. Perhaps it is not “edgy” enough for some listeners but I revel in the sumptuousness of the playing and acoustic. That voluptuousness is enhanced by the unmistakable sweet throb of Herman Krebbers‘ solo violin which sets up a suitably celestial conclusion. The lift and lilt of passages such as “Das Tanzlied” are infectious and wholly apt. This recording is typical of Haitink at his best: unfussy but wholly responsive to every mood and nuance, supported by playing and engineering of the highest quality. This had the misfortune to be issued at the same time as Karajan’s world-beating recording but is in many ways as fine, if not quite so glamorous.

Klaus Tennstedt/London Philharmonic Orchestra 1982 EMI, digital

Given that this is early digital, the sound here is really good: the acoustic is broad – what I hear as more “concert hall sound” rather than spotlit. The sonority of the organ in the opening fanfare is particularly impressive and at true pitch. Furthermore, Tennstedt’s manner with it is one of the closest to that of Strauss himself and Karajan, although overall the performance is somewhat slower than theirs at 35 minutes and I find myself wishing for a little more momentum than the prevailing sense of dreamy mysticism Tennstedt creates. The playing of the LPO is superb – really rich and dense in textures; they were soon to become “his” orchestra, as he succeeded Solti the following year after this recording and it was a mutual love affair resulting in some wonderful concerts and studio recordings. You might prefer Tennstedt’s patrician manner with this music; he accentuates its “spiritual” aspect – and given its philosophical basis that must be valid as an approach. The playing of the opening of “Von der Wissenschaft” is preternaturally ppp but the dynamic contrasts Tennstedt demands are rather effective – and different. The climax of “The Convalescent” is grand, ponderous and massive but its second half and “Das Tanzlied” are playful and sparkling, so this is by no means a uniformly sententious interpretation. As you might expect, the conclusion is ethereal.

This is available as both a single CD and as part of the box set “Klaus Tennstedt: The Great EMI Recordings”; see my review, in which I call this performance “thrilling” – on reflection and in the context of having listened to many more versions, not perhaps the ideal choice of word, but I like it very much; it offers another perspective.

André Previn/Wiener Philharmoniker 1987, Telarc Digital

This has one of the best fanfares on record; the articulation is sharp and the whole is underpinned by a spectacular bass drum. The sonority and legato of the Vienna strings are wonderful and Previn describes a broad curve in “Von den Hinterweltlern” which sets the tone for a refined, subtly muscular, yet enormously powerful performance. This is one of the slower accounts at 35 minutes; VPO caresses the melodic line without going slack; indeed the outburst at 7:40, in the transition from “Von der großen Sehnsucht” to “Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften” is jolting – in the right way; there is no shortage of passion here. The “Grave Song” is moodily menacing and again, Previn builds tension and dynamics judiciously before launching jauntily into “Von der Wissenschaft”, then recaptures the eerie, uneasy sense of threat needed for “Der Genesende”. A further change of mood is very successfully negotiated for the Gemütlichkeit of the waltz section; we are out of the woods into the warmth of a Viennese salon. Gerhart Hetzel’s violin solo is a dream.

Reacquaintance with this recording convinces me that it ranks among the very best – and I should add that the Telarc sound is superb.

Giuseppe Sinopoli/New York Philharmonic Orchestra 1987, Deutsche Grammophon, digital

At 37 minutes, this is the longest account I know – and an extra three or four minutes in this relatively short work provides a lot of scope for dawdling. The sound right from the off is spectacular, everything is grand and deliberate – including the emphatic opening DA-dah – with grumbling, rumbling bass, snarling woodwind, tempi like molasses, smoochily applied rubato in the first Big Tune in “Von den Hinterweltlern” – in truth, it sounds like another work altogether under Sinopoli’s direction and nobody else plays it like this. Sometimes it sounds as if everyone has taken a break mid-phrase, especially in the passage from “Das Grablied” through “Von der Wissenschaft”; that exercises a spooky fascination but I’m not sure it’s what Strauss had in mind. Then suddenly the tempo takes off for “Der Genesende” and we hurtle towards a thunderous climax at 1:25 before another eerily delivered passage. “Das Tanzlied” might as well be a Witches’ Sabbath; the horn whoops menacingly, the solo violin is a Devil’s Trill with a nightmarish quality. To cap the strangeness of this account, “Das Nachtwandlerlied” achieves a kind of quiet serenity quite at odds with what has preceded it.

I usually respond to Sinopoli’s iconoclasm and in no sense do I get the impression that he is cocking a snook at convention or courting originality for its own sake, but maybe this stark, modernist deconstruction which lays bare the sinews of the structure with frightening clarity, is a bridge too far. Sinopoli’s hoots and grunts only add to the weirdness of the experience. I don’t think I can in all conscience recommend it as a preferred version. I hardly know what to make of it other than to say I think anyone interested to hear another take on this music should hear it at least once – then maybe default to something less…adventurous? Exploratory? Sample it on YouTube and see what you think.

Semyon Bychkov/Philharmonia Orchestra 1989, Philips digital

The recent BBC Radio 3 Record Review of this work rightly made a point of extolling the contribution of the timpanist Andy “Thumper” Smith – and the organ is mightily impressive, too. The subsequent problem here is Bychkov’s drawn out tempi; unlike Sinopoli, who confers a rationale upon similar speeds, Bychkov simply sounds slow and sluggish rather than grand or stately. A couple of minutes into  “Von den Hinterweltlern” and  am starting to wonder if he is ever going finish a phrase – but the warnings signs were already there with his treatment of the ad libitum instruction for the fanfare. The playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra is superb but the direction is simply too leisurely; quite frequently, I just wish Bychkov would simply get on with it and stop milking every phrase to death. “Das Grablied” just mutters away somewhere in the background; I am reminded of GBS’s skewering of the Brahms Requiem as something “to be borne patiently only by the corpse”. The power of the climax to “Der Genesende” is a momentary consolation but the waltz music lacks lift and the performance as a whole is laboured. This is a non-starter for me.

Charles Mackerras/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra 1995, Tring/Alto digital

The now defunct RPO Tring label featured some excellent recordings; the sound engineering was often exceptionally good and the series provided a showcase for the virtuosity of the RPO’s different banks of instrumentalists. Here, it is the horns in particular which shine and Mackerras is especially good at bringing out individual melodic lines and their harmonies. There is considerable sweep and grandeur in a reading from a conductor with whom I would not normally associate Strauss’ music. His manner is somewhat deliberate and respectful but he never trivialises or sensationalises the music; conversely, other conductors inject “Von der Wissenschaft”  with more zip and attack but the climax of “Des Genesende” has tremendous timpani heft and “Das Tanzlied” benefits from the presence of Hugh Bean as Guest Leader.  If I have any real reservations about this recording, they stem from what happens at the two extremes of the work: the fanfare is sadly deliberate – I wonder why so many conductors did not, and still do not, trust Strauss’ score here – and at the end in the final section, “Nachtwandlerlied”, the midnight bells are represented by tubular bells pitched higher than is ideal – but at least they are thereby mostly audible. That is not as germane to any proper appreciation of this recording as the rather hurried and perfunctory coda which generates little mystery or discomfiture.

Ultimately, this is a good performance – one of the best of the digital era – but just fails to deliver at a few key points, which is enough to compromise its desirability.

Andris Nelsons/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 2012, Orfeo digital

I deliberately postponed until last listening to this recording for purposes of this survey, as I knew that along with Petrenko’s, it was the most recommended modern/21C  recording. It was welcomed by John Quinn in his 2014 review and then by two more colleagues (review); in his review of Jansons’ recording (see last, below) Simon Thompson declared it “by far the best of recent digital versions.” That might in fact be construed as a tactful and implicit warning that it might be found wanting compared with the titans of the analogue era – and in fact, personally, I find it all very detailed but a bit small scale – too tasteful, in fact. The opening is strikingly sonorous but Nelsons gives the “da-dah” equal weight then applies an unwritten crescendo – slightly self-conscious, I think, but there is more presence to this recording than Petrenko’s Oslo version. There is definitely something highly charged about the scale and ambition of that opening which convinces and the subsequent playing of the lyrical “Backwoodsman” theme is very alluring, even if the CBSO strings will never rival those of the big Germanic orchestras. However, their élan in “Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften” and Nelsons’ pressing on the tempo create more drama than any other modern, digital recording and the fugue of “Von der Wissenschaft” is sternly, inexorably compelling. The build-up to the climax  ‘Der Genesende’  is scorching, even if the high-point itself is a bit occluded by the thundering and ‘Das Tanzlied’ really swirls, twirls and whirls. The midnight bells are the best I have heard – no tin-tray wallops here – although I am not sure that the conclusion is quite as ethereal as it might be. No matter.

This may be somewhat relentless and unsubtle as a performance according to some more delicate sensibilities but that is far preferable to some of the rather dull and polite recordings of more recent years; I share in my fellow MWI reviewers’ delight in it.

François-Xavier Roth/SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg 2013, Hänssler Classic digital

This typically “modern” in its approach and execution, in that it is swift – well under 33 minutes – lean and unsentimental, very well played and recorded – yet to my ears also somewhat uninvolving – even bloodless. My colleague Nick Barnard neatly sums up those qualities so I shall not reproduce his findings but refer you his review. I find it all rather too rushed and, at times even perfunctory and literal – although it is certainly better than Roth’s LSO Live release, which I am not reviewing. The irony of playing the fugue in “Von der Wissenschaft” as a dull academic exercise is somewhat lost if the performance as a whole lacks charisma. I look for a recording with more feeling and personality than this; the conclusion in particular is so dry-eyed and matter-of-fact. I am especially surprised that Roth refuses to scale any emotional heights, knowing him as I do to be such a committed exponent of Bruckner.

Vasily Petrenko/Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra 2016, Lawo Classics digital

I am an admirer of Vasily Petrenko but was surprised when this was nominated as best recording in a recent BBC Radio 3 Record Review. This was clearly a bid to establish the virtues of modernity over tradition in playing styles; to my ears, it is very neat and clear but when the Oslo Philharmonic is compared with Karajan’s PO or Reiner’s CSO, it must inescapably be heard as under-powered. I am also not encouraged by an opening which blares “DA-dah”, over-emphasising the first note – but the brass, timpani and organ are great and I am still impressed by the amplitude of the orchestra. However, I cannot help wondering how much of that sound is engineered, as it sounds very close, such that you virtually hear individual cellists, for example, at the start of the prolonged passage beginning “Von den Hinterweltlern”. There is lovely, sinuous quality to both the lyrical passages and the darker music here in “Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften” but the climax of “Der Genesende” is not as overwhelming as that of my favourite Big Band accounts. Likewise, concertmaster Elise Båtnes is obviously very good but neither she nor the orchestra conveys the same reckless rapture as in the grandest moments and other solo violinists are more characterful. I am going round in circles here, because for every mild reservation I have an appreciative observation, such as that concerning the excellence of the soaring strings at the end of “Das Tanzlied”, the impact of the bells as the music segues into “Nachtwandlerlied” and the poise of the coda. Subsequent auditions have not much helped me to come to a firm conclusion, but my tentative response is that it is very good if not as striking as the very best – and Nelsons’ recording strikes me as considerably more powerful. You can sample this on YouTube and make up your own mind.

Vladimir Jurowski/Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra 2016, PentaTone digital

I am immediately deterred by the weaknesses of the opening here: too fast , with a weak “da—dah!” – the notes given equal weight – and fairly tame timpani in rather remote, ploggy sound. It’s a bad start and it pains me to say so because frequent attendance of Jurowski’s concerts during his tenure as Principal Conductor of the LPO made me a big fan. I am heartened to see that my colleague Dan Morgan was similarly unimpressed by this recording from a conductor who usually pleases, concluding his review with, ”Not Jurowski’s finest hour; look elsewhere.”

The whole performance is just too glib and nerveless; I get no sense of the on-the-edge-of-the-seat tension which informs the great recordings. This is not a piece to be played in relaxed fashion but Juroswki seems to have seriously underestimated the need for propulsion so the whole thing comes across as limp. I won’t go on; the faults already adumbrated are sufficient to justify its exclusion. A rare dud from an otherwise justly admired conductor.

Mariss Jansons/Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks 2017, BR Klassik live digital

Two colleagues have already reviewed (review review) this release and both find it meritorious without being anything special. ST dubs it “good…but not brilliant”. I concur: the opening is too fast and the equal emphasis in the fanfare is a bit leaden. There is of course some delightful playing from this princely orchestra and there is much which is delicate and detailed – but it simply lacks excitement.

I do not propose to bore you with an otiose rehashing of my colleagues’ findings, with which I agree, so refer you to their reviews above.


Seeking an overview of the recordings surveyed here, I realised that despite the number of highly recommendable versions, nothing much post-1990 matches my taste, with the one notable exception of Nelsons; otherwise, I find them all too small-scale and pusillanimous, fearful of Romantic indulgence and typically forensic in their emphasis upon clarity and even avoidance of overt emotionalism. In truth, Sinopoli’s controversial foray of 1987 is the last recording I find really interesting. My own front-runners feature no surprises; Karajan 1973 above all, followed by Reiner 1954 (on Pristine or HDTT), are best, then any of Haitink, Previn, Ormandy 1975 (on Dutton), Mehta 1968 and Steinberg – my wild card nomination – will more than satisfy. Those who do not share my taste are advised to investigate Sinopoli and Tennstedt, who are at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from Steinberg, and if you want something more refined, I suggest Petrenko and Kempe. For a modern, digital, no-holds-barred account, go to Nelsons.

Ralph Moore

Appendix – section titles:
“Sonnenaufgang” (Sunrise)
“Von den Hinterweltlern” (Of the Backworldsmen)
“Von der großen Sehnsucht” (Of the Great Longing)
“Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften” (Of Joys and Passions)
“Das Grablied” (The Song of the Grave)
“Von der Wissenschaft” (Of Science and Learning)
“Der Genesende” (The Convalescent)
“Das Tanzlied” (The Dance Song)
“Nachtwandlerlied” (Song of the Night Wanderer)