For SONY's latest budget box, they have gathered together Zubin Mehta's later Strauss digital remakes, recorded for SONY in the 1980s and 90s, with, mostly, the Berlin Philharmonic. For good measure they have also included his (SONY) Also Sprach Zarathustra with the New York Philharmonic, and a rather rare Los Angeles Philharmonic Don Juan, recorded for RCA in 1965. Discs 6 & 7 offer Mehta's complete Salome (again with the Berlin), while disc 7 is a vocal collection of arias sung by soprano Jane Eaglen (with the Israel Philharmonic).
Curiously absent from this box set are two of Strauss's most beloved/popular works: Till Euslenspiegel's Merry Pranks and Death and Transfiguration. Doing a little research, it appears Mehta never recorded these works - at least not commercially. In Decca's more complete 2002 box set, which compiled all of Mehta's earlier recordings with the L.A. Phil (combined with other recordings to make a comprehensive set), these two works were represented by alternative conductors. One wonders why Mehta didn't record them. And it is a pity that SONY didn't include any version of them in this box set. For me this is a detriment to the appeal of this set. A Richard Strauss collection without Till?
However, what we do have is quite wonderful. Mehta brings his usual energy and momentum to these works. And if these later readings are missing just a touch of the freshness and sheer verve so brilliantly displayed in his earlier L.A. Philharmonic recordings (for Decca), there is no denying the Berlin Philharmonic plays magnificently for him here. And the recorded sound is quite good throughout - warmer and with a more natural acoustic than typically heard on most of DG's recordings of this orchestra.
I will mention just a couple of selections which merit singling out, including the one big disappointment: pianist Daniel Barenboim's attempt at Burleske. Oh my. How piano playing of such sloppiness was approved for release is a complete shock. There is an alarming amount of fluffing and more than a few wrong notes sprinkled in. Mehta does his best to make this piece work (not an easy task), but clearly Barenboim is not up to the challenge.
But the remainder of the set is pure gold. The Symphonia Domestica and Ein Heldenleben are real highlights, Mehta bringing a real sense of direction and rhapsodic sweep to these scores. Disc 5 is another standout - the Die Frau ohne Schatten Symphonic Fantasy is particularly winning, as is the more familiar Der Rosenkavalier suite. And this An Alpine Symphony is one of the best ever recorded.
As to this RCA Don Juan with the L.A. Philharmonic, to my knowledge it has been previously available only on an expensive, 2007 JVC xrcd24 Japanese audiophile disc. It shows its age only slightly, with a touch of thinness/distortion on the upper range of violins and trumpets during fortissimo passages, but otherwise sounds absolutely splendid. SONY has remastered it with their own 24-bit methods and it sounds very close to the JVC, but not quite as refined. The slight thinness in the upper range of climaxes is more pronounced. However, the differences are minimal and really don't matter, as this is a glorious performance - the young Mehta bursting with endless energy and enthusiasm with an orchestra so eager to please him. The strings in particular sing and soar with yearning and passion. This set is almost worth it just for this! (The single JVC disc costs more than this entire box.)
I make no claims to being an opera expert and thus cannot comment on the complete Salome or the single disc of arias. I can say they are enjoyable, well recorded, and I heard nothing which should be cause for complaint.
All in all, I highly enjoyed this set. I almost always enjoy hearing recordings from Zubin Mehta, and this set is no exception. He truly has a real gift of bringing this music to life with exuberance and natural energy.