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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 [31:48 ]
Burleske in D minor, TrV 145 [20:14]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 [15:00]
Byron Janis (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. 8 March 1954 (Zarathustra); 4 March 1957, Orchestra Hall, Chicago (Burleske); live, 19 January 1952, Carnegie Hall, New York (Till)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC411 [67:28]

During the ten years (1953-1963) that he served as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Fritz Reiner and the orchestra made a substantial number of recordings for RCA. Tough and demanding he may have been but Reiner’s Chicago recordings have stood the test of time and they remain highly regarded.

Reiner set down recordings of a number of pieces by Richard Strauss. He was not the most affectionate of Strauss conductors but his firm grip on the scores and his tremendous, even merciless attention to detail produced some great results. Here are two of his celebrated RCA studio recordings plus a live Carnegie Hall recording of Till Eulenspiegel, which I don’t recall hearing previously.

This Chicago recording of Also sprach Zarathustra is justly famous. I have it on an RCA CD coupled with Reiner’s equally celebrated Ein Heldenleben, a product of the same sessions in March 1954. However, it wasn’t until I looked to see whether there was a previous review on MusicWeb International and came across Paul Shoemaker’s review of the hybrid SACD incarnation of that disc that I read the story of Reiner and his orchestra setting down Also sprach in one take while the engineers were absent at lunch. For all I know the tale may be apocryphal but it’s one of those stories that you’d like to believe to be true.

Comparing the RCA CD and the new Pristine transfer I noticed immediately that the famous rumbling bottom C at the start has more definition and presence in the Pristine transfer. The RCA sound is good but Andrew Rose’s re-mastering has given more body and depth of tone. A little later on, in ‘Of the people of the unseen world’, the passage for divided strings (from 0:54) has greater warmth in the Pristine transfer. As the third section, ‘Of the great longing’ transitions into ‘Of joys and passions’ my RCA CD sounded a bit brighter, which some listeners may prefer. However, I like the richer sound that Andrew Rose has produced here, especially since in so doing he’s not sacrificed the brilliance of the first trumpet (the legendary ‘Bud’ Herseth, I presume). Reiner imparts a fine surge into the music of ‘Of joys and passions’.

At the start of ‘Of science’ I can imagine that some people may prefer the slightly brighter RCA sound as this clarifies what’s going on in the depths of the string section. However, I find that Pristine produce a bit more tonal depth and yet the clarity is still there. In the first part of ‘Dance Song and Night Song’ Reiner is, arguably a bit too strait-laced in the way he directs the music but for most of this score his formidable control pays dividends and his reading of the last section, ‘Night Wanderer’s Song’ is very impressive. This remains a potent account of Also sprach Zarathustra after all these years and the sound belies its sixty-year age, especially in this excellent new transfer.

The Burleske is not my favourite Strauss score but Janis and Reiner do it very well. Again, I find I prefer the sound as reproduced on this new Pristine transfer when compared with my RCA CD. In particular, Andrew Rose has given the piano a degree of extra brilliance and I welcome this.

The live account of Till Eulenspiegel comes in an ambient stereo recording – the other works are in genuine stereo. This performance was given before Reiner took over the reins in Chicago, I think, but already the partnership sounds impressive. The sound is very good and we hear a vivid performance. I have the sense that Reiner achieves more in the way of brilliance than endearment as Till’s story unfolds – and the brass fanfares as he’s hauled before the court sound unusually forbidding. But what impresses is the corporate and individual virtuosity of the orchestra and its discipline – and, remember, this was long before the Solti era. There’s a great deal of fantastic solo work to enjoy and the performance as a whole is memorable. There’s applause at the end and I’m not surprised.

My RCA discs of Also sprach and Burleske have served me well over a good number of years but I’m in no doubt that it’s to these Pristine transfers that I’ll turn in the future when I want to hear Reiner’s performances of these works. Throw in the considerable bonus of the live Till Eulenspiegel and you have a very tempting package of Strauss performances by one of his noted interpreters. Now, Mr Rose, please may we have a new transfer of Reiner’s 1954 Ein Heldenleben?

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Also sprach Zarathustra ~~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche