By the time he reached the twilight of his life, in the 1940s, Richard Strauss was viewed as a throwback, a conservator of the German romantic tradition. But that was hardly his reputation as a young man, when each new symphonic poem to issue from his pen seemed more extreme and outlandish than its predecessor. Certainly that was the case with the 32-year-old Strauss's mammoth meditation on Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, famous for its opening (used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) and enigmatic final cadence. This was modern music in 1896, its profligate orchestral effects about as far out as anyone thought music could get. Strauss even said he wanted to subtitle the piece "Symphonic Optimism in Fin-de-siècle Form, Dedicated to the 20th Century."
How different the 20th century turned out to be. Yet this music has certainly become one of its icons. It is heard to great advantage here, along with a remarkable array of other Straussian concoctions, some quite familiar, some not. Of the world's great orchestras, none has a more distinguished Strauss tradition than the Staatskapelle Dresden. As the pit orchestra of the Dresden Court Opera, it gave the premieres of Feuersnot, Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier between 1901 and 1911; later, with Karl Böhm conducting, it played the premiere of Daphne.
Most of Strauss's major tone poems have been in the Dresden orchestra's concert repertory since the day they were written. Back in the 1970s, EMI was able to capitalize on this fact when it reunited the Staatskapelle with Rudolf Kempe--a native of Dresden, one of the master conductors of the 20th century, and an absolutely authoritative Straussian--for an integral recording of Strauss's orchestral works and concertos. The cycle was warmly received when it was originally released on LP, and it has become one of the treasures of the CD catalog since EMI reissued it whole, in three volumes, in 1992. Across the board, Kempe and the Dresdeners give magnificent readings of the music. Their Zarathustra is heroic and exultant, though it's the one recording in this set where EMI has allowed the somewhat veiled sound of its original digital remastering (done in 1987) to stand. Everything else on these discs was remastered in 1992, and sounds splendidly immediate and full-bodied. --Ted Libbey