Herbert von Karajan is acknowledged as one of the foremost interpreters of the music of composer Richard Strauss, which may be why his recording of the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra was used in the opening of "2001: A Space Odyssey". In this review we feature two separate albums by the great conductor, covering the same works by Richard Strauss, though recorded 15 years apart. People will have different favourites from this composer but most who are familiar with his work would list the tracks chosen in these recordings as among his most famous and best, almost a "Strauss's Greatest Hits". If you haven't listened to much music by Richard Strauss then we recommend these recordings as a very good place to start. Rather than review the nuances of these recordings and the performances themselves, let us simply say that both are excellent. Instead we want to describe the actual works performed so as to introduce anyone relatively new to the music of Richard Strauss who might otherwise hestitate before listening.
Firstly "Also Sprach Zarathustra" which is the longest work on these albums. You are no doubt familiar with the opening section of this as the main theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey which depicts a Sunrise. If you are expecting the rest of the work to continue in a similar triumphant vein for 40 minutes then you may initially be disappointed, since the work covers a wide range of different moods. But if you persevere with listening, you will certainly find other moments to savour and will come to accept the work as the complex but deeply satisfying work it is. Strauss named this "Tone Poem" after a book by Nietzsche describing it as loosely based on the book which itself is loosely based on an ancient prophet called Zarathustra (or Zoroaster to the Greeks). Nietzsche used poetry to describe the life and the preachings of this prophet, including the philosophy of the "Superman" that Man would evolve into. The book itself is at times a painfully turgid and abstruse read and we don't recommend this to anyone other than philosphy students, but it must have sparked sufficient interest in Richard Strauss to inspire this great music (as it had also in part inspired Mahler). Rather than write philosophical music though, he instead used some of the chapter headings, teachings and storylines as a starting point. In addition to the sunrise "Introduction", the music sections include "Of the Backworldsmen", "Of the Great Longing", "Of Joys and Passions", "The Song of the Grave", "Of Science", "The Convalescent", "The Dance Song", and "The Night Wanderer" corresponding to chapters of the book.
Through these sections, Strauss weaves a number of short motifs, the main one being the rising C-G-C motto which starts the whole work. The next two full orchestral chords in the opening are major then minor in quick succession. This also represent a sort of duality in man between the "Backworldsman" his physical or genetic heritage, and the spiritual "Superman" to which he aspires. There is also a certain duality of key in the work which has important material in the close yet remote keys of C and B. In the Tone Poem, this duality is not resolved and the music ends on an enigmatic decrescendo which alternates between the C-G-C motto and a B minor chord. Along the way, Strauss includes a fugue for the "Of Science" section (since a fugue is a very "scientific" form) based on a theme which starts with C-G-C, proceeds with the three notes of a B minor chord and then includes all the 12 tones of the scale (if it wasn't for the repetition of some tones this would be a "tone row", a compositional technique which some composers were experimenting with at the time). The theme itself initially seems slow and dull but it evolves into some of the most charged and powerful music ever. "The Dance Song" seems initially to be almost frivolous in contrast, since it is based on a Viennese Waltz such as the ones composed by Johann Strauss, but again in the hands of the unrelated Richard Strauss it proves to be a driving force propelling the musical narrative forward to another powerful climax which introduces "The Night Wanderer" whose 12 bells gradually lead the work towards its closing duality.
Moving to the other two Tone Poems in the album, "Till Eulenspiegel" is the name of a prankster who is always up to mischieve. The music starts by building up to a wonderful climax as though about to introduce some momentous event. Instead it leads immediately into Till's theme. This musical joke therefore turns out to be a huge anticlimax as our expectations are led astray. (There are few comparable anti-climaxes in the world of music, but another is the introduction to Dohnanyi's "Variations on a Nursery Rhyme".) The rest of the Tone Poem tells the adventures of Till as he plays his tricks on a number of people and groups. This becomes increasingly annoying to his victims and when the authorities eventually catch up with the rogue, he is sentenced to death. This sequence features a drum roll and funeral march as he is led to the gallows. The piece then repeats part of the opening as though to wind up the story before ending on a high note with Till's joke theme again as though he pulls a final prank just before his execution.
The other Tone Poem is "Don Juan" which the first that Strauss composed. Music of this passion seems commonplace now, but it was controversial on its first release. Before long it had won over the hearts of the concert-going public to make the composer's reputation, becoming one of the most popular works in the repertoire. It is based on the story of the great lover "Don Juan" and his adventures as he seeks the perfect woman. It starts in fine form reminiscent (as we have stated elsewhere) of the Swashbuckling themes of Korngold, introducing the hero. Then there is a love theme and a series of romantic adventures, before a rousing ending.
The final work on these recordings is Salome's infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils" from the opera of the same name. As we stated previously, these are great recordings and recommended to any music lover who wants to explore the sound world of Richard Strauss. Both are available at very reasonable prices and make excellent value for money. For the later 1974 recording go to these links at Amazon.co.uk in the UK or Amazon.com in the US. For the 1959 recording (as used in 2001, but obviously using older recording technology) go to these links at Amazon.co.uk in the UK or Amazon.com in the US.