Written between the ages of 25 and 31, the first three tone poems of Richard Strauss represent steps in the development of the composer. Although it is hard to conceive in modern times, the use of such blatantly programmatic music was met with a fair amount of consternation by some critics in the late 1880s and 1890s. Strauss chose as his first three subjects two very extroverted, literary subjects (Don Juan and Macbeth) and one extremely introverted subject (Death and Transfiguration), a surprising topic for such a young man. Strauss proved himself immediately to be a master of orchestral color and effect, and it is indeed these elements on which successful performances of the tone poems rely far more than unerring precision in execution. The Queensland Orchestra under the baton of Johannes Fritzsch puts forth a valiant effort in their ABC Classics recording of these three tone poems, but lacks the brilliance of effect that is needed. Don Juan and Macbeth are performed sufficiently, but with the required amounts of brazenness, recklessness, and abandon. The orchestra's brass section is present, but not muscular and often failing to truly power its way through the orchestra. It is during Death and Transfiguration that the orchestra surprisingly starts to liven up, probably the last of the three tone poems where this would be expected. Still, one good performance out of three isn't enough to warrant this album's selection as a great introduction to these works.
AllMusic Review by Mike D. Brownell