Given Delos's reputation for great sound, it will come as little surprise that these two demonstrative scores have seldom, if ever, received engineering as dramatically lifelike as this. What may come as a greater surprise, however, is that Litton's interpretations are among the finest on disc, and that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra yields little to the best orchestras that have recorded these works.
Delos clearly is out to wow us here. Even without Dolby Surround playback, the soundstage is astonishingly realistic. Placement of instruments is superb, and the clarity and impact of the overall sound picture rival those of any recording I know. When the organ joins the orchestra, the texture remains crisp and well defined. Pianissimos are preternaturally present, and fortissimos are full-bodied, clean, and balanced. Nothing smacking of artificiality spoils the musical effect.
When he first appeared on the international scene, Litton, an American, was adored by the English press. I didn't hear much to be excited about and I didn't follow his career closely. After hearing these recordings, I have to revise my opinion. He is a sensitive conductor. His Zarathustra is passionate, and its architecture is remarkably solid. The Planets shine as if they were brand new. Many listeners, myself included, are on the verge of being jaded by these scores. It is a testimony to Litton's cleverness and commitment that he made me thrilled and moved by both of them. How has he done it? How has he made them seem young again? It is difficult for me to put a finger on it, but I think it has something to do with his ability to present familiar material in new ways without being untrue to the composer. For example, try "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" from The Planets: Litton recapitulates the first main theme in a manner that makes it sound like a drunken Falstaff being roused from a momentary patriotic reverie. Another talking point of Litton's conducting is its emphasis on clarity and balance. Melody always remains in the foreground, and yet harmonies and supporting details remain discernible. This may sound pretty basic, but it's surprising how many recordings fail simply because one cannot hear what the composer has written.
No, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra hasn't got the Vienna Philharmonic's string section, and so "Of the Dwellers in the World Beyond" from Zarathustra isn't maximally rich, but that's OK: the Dallas group compensates by playing all of this music with a precision and interest that don't come with overfamiliarity. They are wonderful musicians.
Even if you are glutted with Planets and surfeited with Zarathustras, I recommend these new recordings without reservation. Because neither work lasts longer than 50 minutes, I suspect that Delos is offering this 2-CD set at a reduced price. Even at full price, however, these recordings are a great value.
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle