STRAUSS: Also sprach Zarathustra. Op. 30. Don Juan, Op. 20. Symphonia  domestica, Op. 53. Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24. Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28. Macbeth, Op. 23. Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40. Alpine Symphony, Op. 64. Suite from Der Rosenkavalier.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Lorin Maazel, cond.
RCA/BMG 63265 (4 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 76:40 / 74:23 / 62:08 / 70:22

There are several multiple-CD sets devoted to orchestral works of Richard Strauss. The most complete is EMI's set conducted by Rudolf Kempe which includes, in addition to the symphonic poems, the oboe and two horn concertos, and Burlesque for piano and orchestra, as well as several other works for small orchestra. This series offers distinguished performances at a very reasonable price, but sonic quality is disappointing.(NOTE: all of Kempe's Strauss EMI recordings are now available in a budget set - see REVIEW). RCA/BMG competes with itself on this new Maazel set, as not long ago they issued a 5-CD set of all of Fritz Reiner's Chicago Symphony Strauss recordings, newly remastered and sounding better than ever. Fortunately Bernard Haitink's fine 2-CD set on Philips of Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel and Death & Transfiguration is still available at budget-price.

These Maazel Strauss performances were recorded 1995-1998 in Munich. All have been released before; now they are collected together in a 4-CD set being sold for the price of 3, still a rather hefty investment for the collector who probably has recordings of most of the music What then is the justification for getting this set? Well, the main reason is the sound. Recorded in Dolby Surround Sound, it offers the performances with remarkable realism when played back in Dolby ProLogic format. The off-stage hunting horns in Alpine Symphony are perfectly balanced. The organ in the same work, and in Zarathustra, is solid and deep. In regular stereo the effect is not as impressive; bass throughout is rather undefined in that format. But in Dolby ProLogic Surround Sound one hears a superb concert hall perspective with natural stereo, depth and warmth. Maazel has recorded most of this repertory before. Generally these new performances are effective, although Maazel tends to overstate some obvious points in the music. His hesitation before the climax in Death and Transfiguration is a mistake. This "D&T" is far removed from the glories of Szell,Monteux and Mengelberg. However, I like Maazel's added tam-tam during the tumultuous descending passage after the Don Juan horn calls in Heldenleben. Like most conductors, he fails to follow the composer's instructions for the opening three trumpet notes in Zarathustra; the first should be barely audible, the following two successively louder. The Rosenkavalier suite seems out-of-place in this collection; with a bit of rearrangement they could have included Aus italien or Don Quixote.

Maazel has been music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony since 1994. The orchestra is first-rate, with outstanding brass. I would think most Straussians would find much of interest in these recordings. Packaging is rather strange. Each CD disk has a different photo of Maazel but does not identify music on the CD. However, the CD number appears in small print so you would be able to get the CDs back into their correct boxes. It has been rumored that Maazel's ego is Olympian; could this be the reason for the odd packaging?

R.E.B. (Sept. 1999)