First, let’s get the old joke out of the way about your being able to tell a true, dyed-in-the-wool audiophile because he only listens to the introductory fanfare (“Sunrise”) of Zarathustra. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Next, let’s consider the performance. In 1954 conductor Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony made their first recording of Zarathustra in stereo for RCA. It became one of the earliest commercially available stereo recordings ever produced (and the earliest stereo recording of Zarathustra, period). Eight years later, in 1962, RCA audio engineers figured they had advanced the art of stereo recording enough that they asked Reiner to re-record the piece, which we have here. Subsequently, RCA released both the 1954 and 1962 recordings to CD in their “Living Stereo” series, and I was lucky enough to have both recordings on hand (the ’62 version on a JVC XRCD) for comparison.
The thing is, when Reiner made the ‘62 recording, he was in ill health, resigning from the orchestra shortly afterwards and dying the following year. His health issues may explain in part why critics for the past fifty years have pretty much agreed that this later recording was not quite as spontaneous, animated, or tension-filled as the earlier one. Indeed, the ’54 recording has withstood the test of time remarkably well, becoming a genuine classic, and there really hasn’t been anything to come along since to surpass it. Certainly not Reiner’s ’62 performance, which, by the way, is still quite good. What’s more, the ’54 recording’s audio quality holds its own as well, and in some people’s estimation still sounds better than the ‘62 one we have here. In any case, it’s the later recording HDTT remastered, so I was anxious to give it a listen.
A little more background: German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) in 1896, inspired by a philosophical novel by the German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss divided the music into nine sections, naming the sections after various chapters of the book: “Sunrise,” “Of the Inhabitants of the Unseen World,” “Of the Great Longing,” “Of Joys and Passions,” “The Grave Song,” “Of Science and Learning,” “The Convalescent,” “The Dance-Song,” and “The Night-Wanderer’s Song.”
It’s probably best not to put too much stock in the literal meaning of each of these sections but to enjoy them for their figurative spirit. In fact, Strauss himself, criticized at the time for trying to put Nietzsche’s philosophy into music said, “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 evolution, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
Listeners could always expect fine interpretations from Reiner, and I can’t think of a stereo recording he made with the CSO between 1954 and 1962 that didn’t thrill critics and audiences alike. It seems a little unfair that in ‘62 fans expected him to outdo his own ‘54 Zarathustra, since practically no one has done so to this day. Nevertheless, Reiner’s ‘62 performance remains vital, its vision still grand, noble, and eloquent. A simple glance at the timings for the work (about thirty-two minutes in ‘54 and thirty-four minutes in ’62) shows us that the conductor had slowed down a bit with the years and was taking things at a slightly more leisurely pace. This had the advantage, however, in producing a warmer, richer tone, which is especially telling in the final moments of the piece. It’s one of the most-affecting “Night-Wanderer’s Songs” you’ll find anywhere.
The companion music on the disc is Strauss’s early Burleske in D for Piano and Orchestra, with Byron Janis, recorded in 1957. Mr. Janis remains one of America’s preeminent pianists, and his performance of the Burleske remains one of the best you’ll find.
RCA producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded the music in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, in April and May of 1962. The folks at RCA say in their original liner notes that they used six overall microphones for the occasion to capture the full impact of the 109-man orchestra. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered Zarathustra from an RCA 4-track tape (and the Burleske from an RCA LP) and then transferred it to HQCD. I put the HDTT disc into one CD player and the audiophile edition JVC XRCD of it remastered from the original master tape into another player and listened to them side-by-side, changing them out of each player from time to time to ensure fairness.
The chief difference I noticed within moments of Zarathustra was that the HDTT disc had a better left-to-right stereo spread than the JVC disc, the JVC for some odd reason favoring the left side of the stage. The HDTT, by contrast, distributed the instruments far more evenly and more realistically across the sound stage. Then I noted a marginally greater degree of clarity from the HDTT disc, while the JVC seemed to produce a greater degree of smoothness, although these qualities appeared to vary a tad as the comparison went on. Both discs displayed about an equal amount of roughness in the strings, no doubt a characteristic of the master tape, but for that matter the roughness was almost too small to care about. In addition, I heard a minimal level of background noise from both discs, with the effect perhaps heightened at times by the increased transparency of the HDTT. Bass was robust on both discs, and spaciousness and dynamics as well, but I’d give a small edge here to the HDTT.
Perhaps some day HDTT will favor us with a remastering of Reiner’s 1954 recording of the work. “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
HDTT remastered the Burleske from a 1957 RCA LP, and I actually found its sound a touch more pleasing than the Zarathustra. It seemed quieter and softer, with a warm, added glow. It’s quite nice, and even if the music itself is nowhere near as impressive as Zarathustra, it makes a welcome coupling.
For further information about HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.