Before you order read first the brillliant overview of the Mahler symphonies by the late Tony Duggan
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra; Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3
This is one of my favorites for headphones. It is a binural recording and the imaging is fantastic! It can be difficult / a bit expensive to track down a copy, but it is one of my go-to test CDs for new equipment and in my regular rotation in between. IMHO well worth the effort/cash.
Well, I offer up Brahms recommendations, he's a favorite. Now keep in mind that I don't care how great a performance is if the sound isn't up to modern standards. I know that rankles a lot of people but, as a dedicated headphone listener, the better the sound the better the experience. And frankly, there are many modern performances that are the equal of anything from the past.
For starters, the Mackerras set on Telarc is top-notch in every way. Great performances, thrilling sound, very stirring. If you want big-band performances along the Furtwangler line, Barenboim with Chicago is also highly recommendable. On a budget, and slightly older but in no way inferior, Levine with Chicago on RCA is a great bargain and what performances! His Brahms Requiem is also quite good.
Re Kempe. They DO belong in serious collections. He was a dedicated conductor who was among the first to bring some of the lesser known music to the studio. But the cramped, wooly sound just makes them hard to recommend to beginners. Even the older Reiner recordings sound better. For great listening, Previn with the Vienna Philharmonic on Telarc has a lot going for it.
I think Hurwitz described the sound best: a bit variable, excellent in their day...and still sound really good. Yes, they do. But Strauss, like Mahler and Wagner demand an enormous dynamic range that 1960's analog just cannot do as well as digital. I might need to investigate recent re-re-re-releases, though. I picked up the Kempe set when cds were still new and likely the newer masterings do sound better. There's a Brilliant box that I might check out. One thing's sure: the Kempe performances are top notch. No disagreement there.
This makes sense. It seems that as we get further removed in time from the composers and those performers who knew them that the "correct" performing traditions are being lost, if not ignored. In terms of performances (not sound), the older generations had a lot more personality and instinctively knew how the music should go. THere are some mighty fine conductors out there today to be sure, but think of what it was like 60 years ago when the likes of Szell, Ormandy, Reiner, Munch, Paray, Monteux, Rodzinski, Mitropolous, Solti to name just a few were working in the US. Today's golden boy, Dudamel, wouldn't have been worthy to be their assistants. I've never understood the drooling over Simon Rattle who, to me ears, is vastly over rated. And there's the problem, so many orchestras want to hire young, studly conductors whose musical qualifications are suspect. They sure don't know the repertoire, or, as is often the case, they are promoted to positions long before they are truly ready for it. In generations past, conductors spent years studying and learning working in the opera house and had to master so many skills. I suppose it's that way with all the arts -- after a time the message gets watered down and lost, then it must be reinvented.