When it comes to the music of Richard Strauss, none of the world's great orchestras has a more distinguished tradition than the Staatskapelle Dresden. As pit orchestra of the Dresden Court Opera, the Staatskapelle was involved in the premieres, between 1901 and 1911, of Feuersnot, Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier; later, with Karl Böhm conducting, its players participated in the premiere of Daphne. Most of Strauss's major tone poems have been in the Dresden orchestra's concert repertory since completion. Back in the 1970s, EMI was able to capitalise on this association 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 catalogue since EMI reissued it whole, in three volumes, in 1992. With this latest repackaging, the whole impressive enterprise becomes available in one box.
Across the board, Kempe and the Dresdeners give magnificent readings of the music. Their Zarathustra is imposing and grand; their Heldenleben suitably heroic and quite smashingly played; their Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan delightfully brisk, characterful, and exultant (the latter is dispatched in a blazing 16:06, and receives as ardent and exhilarating a reading as you are ever likely to encounter on disc). One of the finest of all the offerings is the account of Eine Alpensinfonie, a Kempe favourite and still a sonic knock-out after nearly three decades.
The less familiar orchestral works are here, as well, including the early tone poems Aus Italien and Macbeth and the admittedly rather frothy ballet scores Josephslegende and Schlagobers. Of special value are the accounts of all Strauss's concerted works, from the early Violin Concerto (played by Ulf Hoelscher) and Burleske for piano and orchestra (with Malcolm Frager as soloist), through Don Quixote (featuring Paul Tortelier in magisterial form) and the two horn concertos, to the Oboe Concerto of 1946 and the final Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon. It's hard to imagine any label tackling such a project in today's bottom-line environment, or coming up with such definitive readings from today's performers. All the more reason to celebrate the appearance of this compendium. --Ted Libbey