Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30. HOLST: The Planets, Op.
The power of record companies over symphony orchestras can be Olympian. After frequent highly successful guest appearances with the Boston Symphony it was assumed William Steinberg (Wilhelm Hans Steinberg before he emigrated to the US from Germany in 1938) would become Music Director of the BSO when Charles Munch left in 1962. It seemed a sure thing until RCA (which had made many magnificent recordings with Charles Munch) used the enticement of a continuation of their recording contract with the BSO if Erich Leinsdorf, a favorite of theirs, was hired insteadand he was. Leinsdorf made many recordings for RCA with the BSO, largely sabotaged by the company itself which issued them in their Dynagroove process which compressed the sound. Only now, in state-of-the-art digital transfers, can the high quality of these recordings/performances be heard. When Leinsdorf left the BSO, Steinberg finally was appointed Music Director, a post he held from 1969 through 1972, retaining his similar post with the Pittsburgh Symphony, one of the first conductors to lead two major orchestras simultaneously, a practice very common since.
Steinberg made three recordings with the BSO, the two listed above plus Hindemith's Mathis der Maler and Concert Music for Brass and Strings, the latter written for the BSO. Again a recording company, this time Deutsche Grammophon, ruled they decided they wanted Steinberg to record The Planets, a work he had not conducted before. He learned it, conducted it in Pittsburgh, later in Boston when this recording was made. Holst's own recordings from 1923 and 1926 race along at a hefty clip; aside from these, Steinberg's is the fastest of the past half-century, clocking in at 45:58. Mars is particularly effective, but magic and mystery of Venus, Saturn and Neptune elude this conductor. Planets was issued previously on a DG budget CD (419 475) coupled with Lux aeterna by Ligeti (not conducted by Steinberg). This new coupling is far more generous.
Steinberg in 1924 became principal conductor of the Cologne Opera where he became familiar with Strauss operas and the composer's purely symphonic works as well; Also sprach Zarathustra was long in his repertory. His "Sunrise" introduction is impressive but from then on it is a hasty, although beautifully played, look at Strauss's philosophical work about Nietzsche's concept of the "Superman." This is the fastest Zarathustra ever recorded, clocking in at 29:56; most recordings are 33/34 minutes (Karajan takes 35:44 in his second Berlin recording, the late Giuseppe Sinopoli's ultra-introspective reading is 37:00, longest of all).
Both Planets and Zarathustra are superbly played by the BSO. Here much of the old sound of the Munch regime (1949-1962) is evident, the super brilliant trumpets, and lighter orchestral textures. Engineering is rather distant, with overall sound that is good enough. However, there is little solid low-bass in either recording. Symphony Hall's organ can sound massive indeed as evidenced by Munch's RCA recording of Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony; that richness and depth is not to be heard on the DG issues.
R.E.B. (June 2001)