Steinberg - Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra - Holst The Planets - MusicWeb International
24 May 2012MusicWeb International
Strange, isn't it, how some conductors lurk on the periphery of one's musical radar for ages, only to be discovered years later. For me, Maurice Abravanel and Paul Paray are but two, William Steinberg a third. In the latter's case I saw his LP of Strauss and Holst many times, but as I already owned Karajan's 1974 Zarathustra (DG) and Boult's Planets (EMI) I didn't think to look any further. Having recently reviewed three of Universal's high-res Studio Masters for Brian Wilson's Download Roundup I thought it a good time to catch up with this classic coupling.
I suspect the premiere of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 in 1968 prompted record companies to pencil in more versions of Zarathustra. Its opening fanfare has since become something of a cliché. Steinberg's LP was eclipsed a few years later by Karajan's first for DG, the cover of which was every bit as dramatic as the reading itself. Indeed, of all Karajan's Strauss recordings that one would be most welcome as a Studio Master. The final - digital - one is less desirable in terms of sound and performance.
First impressions of Steinberg's Zarathustra are slightly mixed; the organ is low-key but impressive, the brass somewhat distant. It's a momentary blip, for the rest is well balanced and suitably spacious. For those reared on Karajan's more urgent account, Steinberg's ‘Von den Hinterweltlern' may lack the last ounce of ardour - the massed Berlin strings are matchless here. However when it comes to longing, joy and passion the Bostonians play with tremendous swirl and sweep. After refulgence comes reflection and study, during which I realised that Karajan's thrilling, propulsive reading masks so much of Strauss's more delicate writing. All of it is lovingly exposed by Steinberg and his Boston band.
Sonically this recording is warm and wide-ranging with timbres clear and true. Just listen to the gorgeous ripple of harps in ‘Von der Wissenschaft'. Although the quieter moments are sometimes a little too muted, tuttis bloom most beautifully and with no hint of stress or strain. The return of the organ at the end of ‘Der Genesende' is a case in point. Steinberg carves out a magnificent, towering tutti that's sure to rattle the windows ... and the neighbours. This is a carefully considered - but consistently dramatic - reading with the conductor loath to overheat the big moments as some are wont to do. That means it may seem slightly underwhelming at first, but believe me this performance grows in stature the more one listens to it.
The second half of Zarathustra is no less satisfying. The waltz rhythms of ‘Das Tanzlied' are sprung in a way I've not heard before. How elegant and expressive the BSO sound at this point. True, Karajan has greater amplitude here - others are perhaps more seamless, too - but for detail and colour Steinberg is hard to beat. As for those midnight bells they have tremendous presence. The rest of the piece passes in quiet, haloed splendour.
It's very impressive and a must-hear for Strauss fans and analogue lovers alike. Indeed, the velvet sound and sheer presence of this download is a world away from the sterility and digital edge of so many reissues from this period. It certainly bodes well for The Planets, Andrew Davis's recent account of which failed to impress when I reviewed it for Download Roundup. The first thing you'll notice about Steinberg's recording is that the orchestra is more forwardly balanced; more controversially, Mars passes at quite a lick. That said, there's no hint of raggedness or rush, the BSO responding with alacrity to Steinberg's challenging beat.
Other conductors - Boult, Previn and Gardiner for instance - are more crushing in those hammered climaxes. However for inexorability and excitement - the many felicities of Holst's score have seldom emerged with such clarity - Steinberg is in a class of his own. The rocking figures in Venus are most beautifully phrased; there's some lovely wind and string playing here. That said, I did detect more hiss than I've heard thus far. It's a very small issue - if it's one at all - especially when the sound is so immersive.
The best analogue recordings always ‘breathed' in a way that most digital ones don't. This Studio Master is a fine example of that long-vanished breed. Just listen to the gurgle of woodwind and the pluck of harps at the start of Mercury and you'll know exactly what I mean. Indeed, the sense of being there is quite uncanny. Steinberg exhorts his players to some of the most emotive playing I've heard in ages. The scurrying start to Jupiter is airy and emphatic; the Boston brass really are in fine form. Again, swiftness doesn't faze these players. Ensemble is crisp and coherent at all times. As for that noble - somewhat Elgarian tune - Steinberg is broad but never portentous and the timps and crowning cymbals are very well caught.
In principle Steinberg's Planets seems much too fast, but as a performance it never fails to connect and communicate. His clear-eyed Saturn isn't as mystical it can be, but the upside is that individual strands and timbres are much more easily discerned. Indeed, if there's one recording that delivers all the complexity - and skill - of Holst's great score it must be this one. As good as he is, none of Boult's celebrated versions offers this level of insight or involvement; certainly not Andrew Davis, whose pallid account sounds even more of a run-through than it did when I first heard it.
The brass and drums in Uranus are especially imperious with the animated, Dukas-like figures that follow being beautifully etched. There a hint of coarseness in the central march tune, but it's very slight; also, the organ isn't as arresting as I'd like. That's soon forgotten in the strange sonorities of Neptune. Once again the level of detail in this 40-year-old recording is astonishing making this otherworldly music as haunting as one could wish. Unusually the wordless choir - normally so genteel - conjures up images of
keening winds in that distant, frigid place.
This re-mastering is proof that old classics can be revitalised and offered up to a whole new generation of listeners. Why I ignored this record all those years ago I'll never know. Suffice to say that Steinberg's Zarathustra is likely to become one of my favourites - his Planets perhaps the favourite. Yes, it all comes at a premium - Studio Masters cost an eye-watering £18 - and, as yet, there are no downloadable booklets. Quality doesn't come cheap, and this really is prime product.
A fine Zarathustra and a distinguished Planets, presented in sound of rare subtlety and presence.
Related LinksBoston Symphony OrchestraNew England Conservatory ChorusWilliam SteinbergStrauss: Also sprach Zarathustra / Holst: The Planets