The idea to record Richard Strauss came to us during the editing of the recording of Alfred Schnittke’s Third Symphony, which the RSB and I have recorded for PENTATONE. I said that having heard the Schnittke in such a brilliantly multi-dimensional way, I would like to hear some pieces of the main repertoire recorded the same way. The first one which came to my mind was “Also sprach Zarathustra”: it is the kind of “spectral analysis” of the sound that I heard in our Schnittke recording that is needed for today’s perception of “Zarathustra”, which in a way launches the whole idea of 20th century music (though technically this piece was written in the 19th century).
We then needed to find companion pieces for the album, Zarathustra being the “main dish” and the others more like a starter or a dessert. So, I thought of Mahler’s “Totenfeier”: written as a separate work, it has a duration of about 25 minutes and tackles comparable questions of life and death.
It is meant for a smaller orchestra than “Zarathustra” and stylistically it still owes a lot to Mahler’s teacher Bruckner. I find it very interesting to compare the later version of “Totenfeier”, which is now the first movement of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony”, and the early version of it, which we have recorded. In many ways, the “Totenfeier” is less accomplished for sure, but far more honest and genuine. The other companion piece is the earliest surviving orchestral composition by Mahler — his Adagio, written while he was studying with Bruckner.