Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra (CD review)

Also, Till Eulenspiegel; Salome's Dance; Don Juan. Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Legends 289 466 388-2.

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
I should mention, however, that all of the performances on the disc are pure Karajan: grand, imposing, sensual, romantic, and luxuriant, with the playing of Vienna Philharmonic always full and rich. Of the four works on the disc, I happen to prefer his Don Juan best for its exciting forward drive and reflective vision. Of the man's three stereo versions of Zarathustra, the second (DG) seems to me more luminous than this earlier one, as well as better detailed (if not, as I say, better known).

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:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa