Karl Böhm and Richard Strauss have a long, personal history dating back to the early '30s. Strauss, in fact, dedicated his opera Daphne to Böhm. And though neither Strauss nor Böhm were official members of the Nazi party, both had great success under the umbrella of the regime. While some critics are quick to point out their willingness to stay in Nazi Germany, perhaps they both merely carved their lives to fit the mold of circumstances they knew they could not alter.
The set of tone poems featured on this release, which spans three compact discs, consists of recordings made primarily in the 1950s of Böhm with the Dresden Staatskapelle, although three of the shorter works on disc -- Till Eulenspiegel, the waltz sequence from Der Rosenkavalier, and the Festliches Präludium -- were all recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Regrettably, the performance of the Alpine Symphony here does neither the work, nor the beautiful photo on the cover, justice. Not only are there a number of intonation problems throughout (the first G flat comes immediately to mind in "Sonnenaufgang," as do the bassoon arpeggios later in the same section), but the tempos tend to be sluggish; instead of an organic morph from place to place on this mountain journey, the music seems to languish away between sections, only to be swept up again at the next tempo change. Noticeably lacking is any sense of an overall arch to the work.
Also sprach Zarathustra suffers from many of the same problems as the Alpine Symphony, although there is at least more clarity here. Although Böhm seems to attempt a flexible approach in some sections, overall the tempi seem inflexible and lacking in a sense of gradation, leaving the listener with a substantially black and white impression. And, like Alpine Symphony, Zarathustra suffers from poor brass intonation in many of the work's more climactic moments. Böhm does manage to draw some exquisite string playing throughout, especially in some of the more quiet and tender moments of the score.
Ein Heldenleben, the last of the big tone poems included as part of this set, also has some good moments. Although the brass problems also persist even here, the battle scene especially unfolds with a stark sense of urgency that is lacking in other performances, though the woodwinds seem to lack the bite on the follow-through, tiring toward the end. Sturdy performances of Tod und Verklarung, the oft-forgotten Festlisches Präludium, and the more popular "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome round out the set.
The sound of this disc does not help its overall appeal; in fact both Zarathustra and Heldenleben are mono recordings. In general, the sound seems extremely thin and does not help represent these meaty works well. Since a similar set exists with the Dresden Staatskapelle and Rudolf Kempe recorded in the 1970s, with improved sound, orchestral playing, and interpretation, unless you are looking for a historical document of how these works sounded closer to Strauss' time (or a Böhm devotee), you can look this one over.