It would be perverse of me to criticize what has become an audio classic over the years, especially Herbert von Karajan's 1959 recording of German composer Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. A snippet of the music, the Introduction, probably reached more listeners via Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else by Strauss in history, and this is the very recording Kubrick used.
The tone poem became so famous thanks to Kubrick's use of Karajan's recording that a joke arose about how you can always tell an audiophile because he only plays the Zarathustra Introduction. Anyway, I'll confine most of my few remarks to Decca's remastered sound of the performance.
|Herbert von Karajan|
Famed Decca producer John Culshaw framed the sound for Decca's Zarathustra as carefully as always, making the Karajan disc just after he had done the same for Georg Solti's Wagner Ring cycle. Culshaw brought the same meticulous expertise to the production as always, creating an expansive sonic picture that for quite a while remained an audiophile demo piece. While I had always found it a bit hard in its vinyl and early CD forms, with this 2000 release Decca remastered it as a part of their mid-priced "Legends" series, and it comes off more comfortably than before. What we get is a smoother, slightly warmer, slightly softer image, yet one that contrasts more than ever with its discernibly rough, noisy background. It's still not entirely satisfactory to me in another way, too, because it seems to lack the life and dynamism I remember from the earlier vinyl and CD editions. I suppose one cannot have everything.
Decca recorded the couplings--Till Eulenspiegel, Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils, and Don Juan--a year later, 1960, and here they appear a bit brighter and better defined than ever. Decca's packaging includes the record's original cover art, which is nice, and they have made the CD itself look like a reel of recording tape. These are clever touches for Karajan's very fine performances, notwithstanding the somewhat indifferent sound.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: