Richard Strauss always liked to claim that he was a "first-rate composer of second-rate music." In terms of composing symphonic tone poems, however, his was anything but second-rate, whether the subject matter was based in Nietzsche ("Also Sprach Zarathustra"), Shakespeare ("Macbeth"), or the psychological and spiritual aspects of life and death ("Death And Transfiguration"). Two great examples of Strauss' compositional genius from different segments of his life are featured on this 1988 recording by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and their conductor laureate Herbert Blomstedt.
"Don Juan", the tone poem that established Strauss as a force in post-Wagner German Romanticism, was based on an unfinished verse play from 1844 by Nikolaus Lenau, itself derived from the same Don Juan legend that spawned one of Mozart's greatest operas, "Don Giovanni." Strauss' colorful depiction of Don Juan's many romantic conquests, which of course eventually end in his demise, are depicted over the course of a period of seventeen and a half minutes, primarily in the keys of E Minor and E Major, showing how much he had learned from Wagner's groundbreaking examples of stretching the orchestra--this and the fact that the size of the orchestra required is fairly substantial anyway. The success of the first performance of "Don Juan" in Weimar in 1890 established Strauss as a primary figure in the world of music from then on right up until his passing almost sixty years later.
His final tone poem, "An Alpine Symphony" (or "Eine Alpensinfonie") is a much more picturesque piece, depicting one climber's impressions of a climb through the Alps, possibly the Bavarian Alps in the southwestern part of Germany. For this work, which premiered in 1915 in Berlin under Strauss' direction, the orchestra required exceeded just about anything found in Mahler or Wagner, and included a wind machine depicting a violent Alpine thunderstorm. It is bookended by brooding but fascinating depictions of night in the foothills of the Alps, and remains one of the great orchestral showpieces, though the size of the orchestra required for it means it gets trotted out on rarer occasions than Strauss' other works.
Blomstedt is no stranger to Strauss, of course, having already done "Don Juan" and various other Strauss works while the prime conductor of Strauss' favored orchestra, the Dresden State Orchestra; but here, he has the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at a level of musical quality equal to, if not exceeding, even that legendary outfit, especially in "An Alpine Symphony", whose performance here may be exceeded only by the one given in 1975 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta (also for London/Decca). Indeed, Blomstedt's Strauss recordings with the S.F.S.O. were high points among many that he had while the orchestra's music director from 1985 to 1995, a tenure that may not have been as attention-grabbing as some, but which certainly placed San Francisco permanently on the classical map. This particular pairing is great proof of how good a pairing both this conductor and this orchestra were (and remain under Michael Tilson-Thomas' stewardship).