Richard Strauss's ''Also Sprach Zarathustra'' has become virtually a cult happening since the first few minutes of it were used by Stanley Kubrick in his classic sci-fi extravaganza, ''2001: A Space Odyssey.'' But there is much more to the score than the opening flourishes, and recordings of the work have become something of a test for high-fi enthusiasts.
No wonder, then, that the digital era has already seen three releases of the work and two half-speed mastered reissues of older performances.
Happily, one of the digital issues features Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Angel DS-37744) in a splendid account. It is richly expansive, dramatic, and lush in all aspects, conducted by a man of vast experience with this literature and featuring the legendary orchestra virtually on the eve of its sonic dismantling by the music director Riccardo Muti. The engineering is all one could ask for, an impressive sample of what digital sound can really be. If you don't own a ''Zarathustra'' or want one in the very latest sound, look no further.
The two other digital recordings offer Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (Philips 6514 221) and Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic (Columbia Mastersound 35888). The Philips recording is one of the rare fizzles from that company. The sound is woolly, the orchestra in indifferent form, and Ozawa is listless from start to end. (If it's the BSO you want, look no further than the analog DG performance with William Steinberg conducting - recently reissued on DG-Privilege 2535 209.)
The Mehta performance is lackluster as well, and the sound is dry and unflattering to the orchestra.
The two half-speed mastered performances feature both Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The classic 1954 recording was done in experimental stereo for RCA, and that company has reissued it on its glamorous Red Seal .5 Series (ATL1-4286). From beginning to end, it is a superlative performance from one of the finest Strauss conductors of the century. The orchestra is as great as one always remembers (Reiner built it and Solti brought it back into the spotlight). The tautness, the attention to detail, the subtle way Reiner discreetly highlights musical points, must be heard to be believed.
The Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs issue of a later Reiner/Chicago performance on its Original Master Recording series (MFSL 1-522) offers other insights. The performance does not sparkle quite the way the RCA release does, but the sound is fuller, richer. The lower volatility of this performance allows for more detail work to be heard, even more subtle shadings and facetings to emerge. Reiner's approach to such a dense score is a full-term course in the art of conducting. I would not want to be without either performance.