When Philips released this recording in the early 1970's with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra doing Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, it was about the same time DG released their recording of Zarathustra by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. I suppose one can forgive listeners in the day for going for the Karajan disc and rather forgetting about the Haitink. Karajan was, after all, probably the most-popular conductor in the world back then, producing glamorous music with a glamorous orchestra. Besides, it was Karajan who had brought new life to the score with his earlier, Vienna recording of the score for Decca when Stanley Kubrick featured it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still and all, it was the Haitink recording I found more involving, equally well performed, and better recorded; and it remains a favorite of mine to this day.
German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896, his inspiration for the symphonic poem a philosophical novel by the German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss divided his score into nine segments, naming the sections after various chapters of Nietzsche's book.
However, the listener should not put too much stock in the literal meanings of the music but instead enjoy each section for its figurative spirit. In fact, Strauss himself, whom some people 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." In other words, one should enjoy the music for itself and not as some sort of musical distillation of Nietzsche's ideas.
Anyway, the nine sections are "Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang" (Introduction, or Sunrise); "Von den Hinterweltlern" (Of Those in Backwaters); "Von der großen Sehnsucht" (Of the Great Longing); "Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften" (Of Joys and Passions); "Das Grablied" (The Song of the Grave); "Von der Wissenschaft" (Of Science and Learning); "Der Genesende" (The Convalescent); "Das Tanzlied" (The Dance Song); and "Nachtwandlerlied" (Song of the Night Wanderer).
And what does Haitink do with the music? He brings to it the same straightforward, unfussy approach he always does, an approach that has served him well for a remarkably long time. It is an approach that serves the music above all, with none of the grand gestures of a Karajan yet with an endearing and engaging simplicity that puts the score foremost. And as well as the Berlin Philharmonic played for Karajan, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra matched them in refinement, richness, sonority, and precision.
Haitink takes us gracefully from one extreme to the next, from the gentlest, most tender moments to the most massive of climaxes. It all sounds beautifully nuanced under this conductor--nothing forced and nothing left to chance. Even the "Science and Learning" section, which I find the least interesting, comes off with a greater degree of lyric passion with Haitink than with most anyone else, and there's a wonderful lilt in the dance number that follows. And so it goes.
Philips recorded Zarathustra and Don Juan in April 1973, and Till Eulenspiegel in December 1982, all three at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Although the recordings are still available on the now-defunct Philips label in a two-disc collection (442-281-2), the recording I reviewed was a single disc from Philips Japan, reissued in 2005. What's more, from what I understand, Decca Records have also rereleased the recordings on a single disc under their own label.
For me, the Seventies were a kind of Golden Age in recording, a bit like the Fifties with RCA "Living Stereo" and Mercury "Living Presence" but in the later decade with EMI and Philips. In the Seventies, while the folks at EMI were recording Andre Previn and the London Symphony and Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony with excellent transparency, balance, and range, the Philips engineers were recording Haitink and the Concertgebouw with a wonderful sense of ambience, depth, and spaciousness. The present recording displays these latter qualities to fine advantage, the Concertgebouw ensemble never sounding richer or more resplendent.
The sound has an all-enveloping sense of place, as though home listeners were actually in the concert hall with the orchestra. Yet there is never any distracting resonance or reverberation, just a natural, realistic response, with enough detail to satisfy the most-demanding audiophile. There is never any brightness, forwardness, or edginess; nor is there any undue softness to the sound. All of it, in fact, is nigh-well perfect, the excellence of the sonics complementing the excellence of the performance.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: