For this two-disc issue, DG wisely remastered some of Herbert von Karajan's recordings of several of Richard Strauss tone poems (original recording year): Also sprach Zarathustra (1973), Don Juan (1972/3), Eine Alpensinfonie (1980), and Till Eulenspiegels Justige Streiche (1972/3), along with Four Last Songs (1985) and Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome (1972/3). The remastering has significantly improved the sound in those recordings for which I could compare with the original. In fact, the sound now compares favorably with recently recorded discs -- even those with two-channel SACD. With so many older but classic recordings out there, it is surprising that the labels have not taken greater advantage of the technology. Most of us who have treasured recordings would gladly buy the remastered discs if they sounded as sublime as the reviewed discs.
So what of the performances? In a word (or two), splendid and definitive. Karajan was always THE conductor gold standard for most Germanic works by composers such as Bruckner and Strauss. Their works seemed to benefit from the warm strength with which Karajan performed them. And he conveyed that strength without them sounding harsh or chilling. While An Alpine Symphony is criticized as aimlessly sprawling, I find that criticism to be more valid in Zarathustra which I consider to be a more challenging listening experience (except, of course, the opening measures made forever famous by "2001 A Space Odyssey." An Alpine Symphony is Strauss's love song to the natural beauty of the mountains that viewed during his youth in Bavaria. It is a work of stellar beauty that the listener must turn off the clock and immerse himself in, allowing the music to sweep him into and though the passages of those mountains.
The two larger works mentioned above as well as Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegels are played with shimmering strings, masculine brass, sweet winds, and emphatic snares and tympani. All are very natural-sounding. The balance between instruments is perfect. In short, the recorded sound is fantastic in its remastered form.
Somehow, it almost seems out of character for Karajan to have recorded such a sultry Dance of the Seven Veils. He must have conducted in a shirt without the usual starch. With regard to the Four Last Songs, I will happily defer to those who enjoy solo vocal music. I have loved the years I sang in choral groups, but I must confess never to have grown fond of solo vocal works. For me, I can tell you the songs occupied the intended tracks. Period.
There are so many fine recordings of the tone poems, that it is a challenge to select the top recordings. Fortunately, you can't really go wrong with Karajan's present album or Kempe's traversals. Since An Alpine Symphony is one of my favorites here, I would also recommend the accounts by Previn and Ahkenazy, and be sure to get Shipway's SACD recording on BIS. Of those four, I cannot pick my absolute favorite. Each time I listen to one, I think "No, this one's the best." But there is still something that sets Karajan above even that small elite group of great recordings...