This two-disc collection of five of Richard Strauss' best-loved tone poems includes four magisterial performances and one hellbent for glory performance. Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra deliver a rousing Also sprach Zarathustra, an exciting Don Juan, an amusing Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, and a monumental Ein Heldenleben using the composer's alternative conclusion. The Philadelphians play with their accustomed blend of blazing virtuosity and burnished elegance, and Sawallisch leads them with a steady hand and a clear head. Ranked against recordings by such masterful Strauss conductors as Böhm and Karajan, though, Sawallisch's are more middling than top-of-the-mountain performances.
That's not the case with Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic's rip-roaring performance of Tod und Verklärung, which has a sense of overwhelming urgency and unbearable intensity more often associated with Mahler than with Strauss. This makes sense, since Tennstedt was far more devoted to Mahler's symphonies than to the Strauss' tone poems, and the results are enormously impressive. Everything matters in this performance but nothing matters more than getting from the death at the work's climax to the transfiguration in its coda, an experience with much of the impact of the close of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. Strauss might have objected, but listeners are likely to be wholly persuaded. Both sets of performances are recorded in clean, colorful digital sound, though the earlier Tennstedt recording is a bit thin when not much is happening, and somewhat congested when a lot is.