It’s interesting that Georg Solti’s recordings of Strauss tone poems seem never to have gotten the attention that they deserve. True, he did not program them with the same frequency and comprehensiveness that he did Strauss’ contemporary Mahler, but Solti’s credentials as an exciting and idiomatic conductor of the operas have never been questioned. He knew and worked with the composer personally from his days at the helm of the Munich opera after the Second World War, and more to the point, he plays this music with just the kind of directness and virtuosity that it demands. This two-disc set also gives you a lot of music for the money, including the reference recording of An Alpine Symphony, now that the Kord version from Warsaw on CDRead more Accord is virtually impossible to find.
The Chicago Symphony recordings of Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, and Also sprach Zarathustra are vivid, brash, and swaggering. It may be that Solti misses some of the humor and charm in Till, but the love music in Don Juan is aptly affectionate, and if he treats Zarathustra as an unabashed orchestral display piece, there’s nothing wrong with that since the whole philosophical underpinning is basically silly anyway. In Ein Heldenleben Solti has the Vienna Philharmonic. This is, actually, a very interesting interpretation, relatively swift, with balances that favor the wind section, especially in the battle scene and in places where the scoring gets dense. It’s not as hard-hitting as you might expect, urgently lyrical rather, and in any event it was wise of Solti to record the work in Vienna rather than in Chicago, where he would have risked comparison with the basically incomparable Reiner edition on RCA Living Stereo. Sometimes it’s just better to “take it on the road”.
That brings us to An Alpine Symphony, and as I said, this is an amazing performance–with the Bavarian Radio Symphony–of an often maligned work. All it really needs is just what Solti offers: an honest, swift, pictorially direct, instrumentally virtuosic, take-no-prisoners reading of exactly what Strauss wrote. This recording never received much acclaim, probably because few critics truly believe in the music in the first place; but as a gloriously played and recorded, cohesive symphonic statement its stature can’t be denied. It also has, hands down, the best version of the storm (along with Kord) ever captured, and let’s face it: An Alpine Symphony with a wimpy storm isn’t worth anyone’s time. Solti has his players bang the hell out of the thunder sheet at the climax with positively masochistic glee, and it’s just plain terrific. This set will provide years of pleasure–it’s great fun.