Reiner became music director of the Chicago Symphony in the fall of 1953, and by midseason had rebuilt it into one of the select handful of the world's finest orchestras. (Among his relatively few personnel changes was his bringing Janos Starker with him as principal cellist.) Since he was one of the most admired Strauss interpreters of his or any other time, that composer's works naturally received prime attention: Reiner's Chicago recording series was launched with the two titles cited above, in March 1954, and before he left Chicago he added a good deal more Strauss to his discography -- "Don Quixote" (with Antonio Janigro), the "Sinphonia Domestica," his own arrangement of the "Rosenkavalier" Waltzes, the "Bu rger als Edelmann" Suite, "Salome's Dance", some vocal excerpts from "Salome" and "Elektra," two recordings of "Don Juan" and a remake of "Zarathustra."
The 1954 "Heldenleben" and "Zarathustra" were among the very earliest stereo recordings issued on any label. Even before they were released in stereo, the mono editions were acknowledged for their sonic as well as musical excellence. Virtually everything that came from Reiner and the Chicago Symphony from that point on was exceptional; the series is justly regarded as one of his, the orchestra's and the phonograph's finest chapters.
The "Point 5" series is RCA's new program of sonic rehabilitation for some of its most treasurable early-stereo recordings, through half-speed remastering and the same meticulous German pressings heretofore reserved for the company's digital releases. John Pfeiffer, who produced the "Heldenleben" recording back in 1954, is responsible for the "Point 5" reissues, and even he must have been astounded by the quality of the sound he was able to get out of those old tapes. The Reiner "Heldenleben" now is fully competitive with the finest-sounding versions recorded as much as a quarter-century later, and I would place it at the very top of the current list.
The "Zarathustra" recorded at the same time may not get the "Point 5" treatment, because Reiner's 1963 remake of that work has been leased to Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs for its own half-speed-remastered series, pressed in Japan. The more persuasive 1954 performance is still in the catalogue as Victrola VICS-1265, the remake is available on both RCA LSC-2609 and MFSL 1-522 -- and the Haitink/Concertgebouw version (Philips 6500.624) remains the all-round choice "Zarathustra" for now.
The next scheduled "Point 5" release is to bring us a refurbishing of Pierre Monteux's superb performance of the Franck Symphony with Reiner's Chicago Orchestra. This was recorded about five years later than "Heldenleben," and had richer sound in the first place; the remastered edition should be a knockout.
In the meantime, the Reiner "Pines . . ." and "Fountains of Rome," which launched the "Point 5" series (ATL1-4040), must face competition in the same category from another new MFSL remastering, this one of the London/Decca recording of the "Pines" and "Feste Romane," performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel. MFSL 1-507 is one of the smoothest-sounding discs yet in this company's "classical" series, and if this combination of titles appeals to you more than the "Pines" and "Fountains," it can be heartily recommended. Personally, I'm inclined to favor Reiner, and to hope RCA may get round to "Point 5-ing" its 1965 "Feste Romane" recording by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a quite exceptional performance of the most garish of Respighi's gorgeous Roman extravaganzas.