Among those composers who made it a regular practice to work with the full forces of a symphony orchestra, Richard Strauss may well be the most popular. In the recording industry his tone poems became major tests for the capabilities of audio capture technologies; and, in the homes of audiophiles, one is likely to encounter a tone poem like the Opus 30 “Also sprach Zarathustra” rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Dark Side of the Moon. However, since Strauss died on September 8, 1949, it is almost certain that any encounter he had with recorded music was a disappointing one.
It was only with the introduction of the long-playing record that technology was finally in a position to do justice to Strauss’ music. With this in mind, the Decca Music Group had the good fortune to draw upon the services of conductor Clemens Krauss. As one of the conductors for the Vienna State Opera, Krauss presided over the premiere performances of four major Strauss operas, Arabella (Opus 79), the one-act “Friedenstag” (Opus 81), Capriccio (Opus 85), and Die Liebe der Danae (not presented until after Strauss’ death). Indeed, Krauss served as co-librettist for Capriccio, which was one of Strauss’ “autobiographical” operas; and the opera is dedicated to him, describing him as “friend and collaborator.”
Decca’s efforts to produce recordings of Strauss’ music with enough “high fidelity” to do appropriate justice to the composer’s keen ear for sonority took place between 1950 and 1954. All of these recordings were made with Krauss conducting the Vienna Philharmonic; and this past June Decca released the entire collection as a five-CD box set. This includes a complete Salome (Opus 54), which is the only studio recording that Krauss made of a Strauss opera, as well as most of the familiar tone poems: “Don Juan” (Opus 20), Ein Heldenleben” (Opus 40), “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Opus 30), “Don Quixote” (Opus 35), “Sinfonia domestica” (Opus 53), “Aus Italien” (Opus 16), and “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” (Opus 28). It also includes the Opus 60 orchestral suite of incidental music that Strauss composed for a presentation of Molière’s play Le bourgeois gentilhomme.
This is, without a doubt, a generous survey of the Strauss canon. It terms of what tends to stand out as favorite selections, the only real absence is that of any of the waltz material from the Opus 59 opera Der Rosenkavalier. What is more important, however, is the impressive degree of detail that Krauss brings to each of these pieces and the ability of the Decca technology to do justice to his efforts. Thus, when Strauss is at his thickest (as when it feels as if he is visiting his entire past repertoire as “Heldenleben” winds down after its vigorous battle scene), the listener is well-equipped to appreciate the intricacy of his overlay techniques.
However, beyond balancing these vast instrumental resources, Krauss also commanded a solid “macro” understanding of each of the tone poems. He realized that each of them was structured as a narrative, related as a series of episodes. Thus, Krauss also impresses with his ability to bring a “storyteller’s rhetoric” to his overall interpretation. This is particularly important where Opus 30 is involved, since too many performances treat it as an overwhelming sunrise, followed by an extremely lengthy account of afterthoughts. Mind you, Strauss himself acknowledged that the connection with Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of the same name was a loose one; but Krauss still finds a way to do justice to Strauss’ thoughts about the book without overloading the “special effects” of the opening measures.
Decca released this collection to mark the 150th anniversary of Strauss’ birth on June 11, 1864. It is thus worth noting that Deutsche Grammophon used the occasion to reissue their own recordings of Strauss himself performing. These include three CDs of his conducting his own music, one with him providing piano accompaniment for a selection of his songs sung by Heinrich Schlusnus, and three CDs of his conducting other composers: one for Mozart, one for Beethoven, and one of overtures by Peter Cornelius, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Richard Wagner, and Carl Maria von Weber.
These were made with much earlier technology. The songs were recorded in 1921, and the other recordings were made between 1926 and 1941. While these certainly provide evidence to validate Strauss’ reputation as both conductor and accompanist, the capture technology is simply not up to providing a satisfactory account of just how much of a stickler for detail Strauss is supposed to have been.
In spite of those shortcomings, it is still possible to enjoy the hell-bent-for-leather approach to Opus 20. There is almost a sense of desperation in his evocation of Don Juan’s personality. Mind you, this may have been a product of Strauss’ fierce determination to cram as much as possible onto a single matrix. (If the medium was for 78 RPM discs, my guess is that two were necessary.) Whatever the cause, however, this is a chilling account that presents the character of Don Juan at its darkest; and that is definitely worth setting aside the time for listening.