R. Strauss Orchestral Works
Those who have been following RCA's Fritz Reiner Collection will know what to expect from these outstanding digital remasters. It is astonishing to reflect that this earlier of Reiner's two Chicago recordings of Also sprach Zarathustra was made on March 8th, 1954 in stereo when Toscanini was still (just) recording in low-fi in New York's Carnegie Hall. The sound may be tonally fierce by current standards (less so than many oft-praised Mercury reissues) but the balance is fully acceptable, with the first and second violins set close to the listener (and the microphones) on either side of the podium, and the basses hard left. By the time of taping the Bourgeois gentilhomme suite and Rosenkavalier waltzes, Reiner had adopted a more conventional layout, and the engineering seems a degree or two more 'modern', capturing the distinctive ambience of the hall.
Reiner's 1954 Also sprach is arguably more characteristic than his 1962 RCA remake (7/88). That is to say, it is even more intense and extrovert. In his second year with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the conductor was already getting a thrilling response from the strings, although woodwind intonation could be a problem. Confident and well played as it is, the spectacular opening sunrise inevitably lacks the impact of, say, Previn's Telarc recording (the organ is particularly disappointing). Nor is there the dark solemnity of and detail in the bass familiar from Karajan's DG versions. What we have instead is a measure of raw passion and forward thrust unequalled on disc. In reflective passages, conductor and/or engineers display some reluctance to achieve a real pianissimo, but as the tempo builds Reiner invariably creates great excitement and the orchestral playing is marvellous.
The Bourgeois gentilhomme suite (slightly abridged here) is not a great favourite of mine and I felt that the Chicagoans' undoubted virtuosity was not in the end preferable to the RPO's more delicate approach under Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI) despite the superior sonics. However, you feel about the disconnected Rosenkavalier waltzes, Reiner's self-consciously 'brilliant' manner provides a suitable showcase for a great orchestra at its peak. Buy this disc for Zarathustra, but sample first the fabulous playing and opulent sound of Reiner's Salome and Elektra excerpts (RCA (CD) GD60874)—my own Strauss issue of the year.'