Strauss: Don Quixote; Don Juan; Also sprach Zarathustra; Ein Heldenleben; Symphonia domestica; scenes from Elektra & Salome; Burleske

COMPOSERS: Strauss
LABELS: RCA Victor Living
WORKS: Don Quixote; Don Juan; Also sprach Zarathustra; Ein Heldenleben; Symphonia domestica; scenes from Elektra & Salome; Burleske
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Fritz Reiner
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 68635 2 ADD
This is not the ‘ultimate’ Reiner-conducts-Strauss collection; had it been, RCA would have substituted one of the two studio Zarathustras presented here with the conductor’s mono recording of Death and Transfiguration and his Till Eulenspiegel with the Vienna Philharmonic. What we do have is Strauss from Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in ‘Living Stereo’ – and from the original booklet notes reproduced here you might think the last of those attributes was the most important.

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The composer would have chuckled at the thought of being tagged ‘this new sound gospel’s lifelong prophet and evangelist’, but had he lived another five years, to the grand old age of 90, he would surely have been amazed by the leap in to grown-up stereo taken in those early months of 1954. Reiner’s first recorded Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben and Salome’s Dance – sonically most stupendous of all for the way it deals with flashes of blood-red colour – date from March of that year. Sensuous pleasure can still be taken in the artificial richness of sound, odd though it may be to hear cellos boxy stage left and those heady Chicago strings suddenly swimming in to the forefront for the most lusciously noble Heldenleben epilogue of all.

In claiming that such music’s chief appeal is to the ears rather than to the emotions, however, the annotator of old is very wide of the mark. This, after all, is Reiner, a Strauss conductor unique in his balance of suppleness and stern mastery, sensitivity and power. The visceral power of rushing double basses in the first bar of the Elektra excerpts may owe a great deal to the sound, but no interpreter in any of the complete recordings of the opera shapes the tension and release of Elektra’s reunion with her long-lost brother Orestes more vividly.

The least sonically impressive of the series, Reiner’s 1956 Symphonia domestica, suffers uncharacteristic distortion of flat-out Chicago brass and that may be why its release in the ‘Living Stereo’ series, alongside seven of the nine movements from the Bourgeois gentilhomme suite, has been so long delayed. Yet it is surely the most multi-faceted of the orchestral performances; Reiner’s introspective tenderness in the chamber musical passages, casting a halo around family warmth, comes as a surprise.

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Another later release, the 1962 Zarathustra, suggests greater spaciousness and dignity than its predecessor due partly to the freed-up string sound, partly to Reiner’s broader tempi. On the same disc, he argues his own gaudy arrangement of the Rosenkavalier waltzes with tremendous panache and Byron Janis glitters with Lisztian transcendentalism in the Burleske. Reiner’s other soloists, cellist Antonio Janigro in an orchestrally racy Don Quixote and Inge Borkh as a short-winded but always intelligent Elektra and Salome, seem reticent by comparison; perhaps they were over-awed by a conductor whose style, like the music and the recording throughout these five discs, was always larger than life. David Nice