Aus Italien op.16 (1886)
My version: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Kosler (Naxos, 1990, 42 min)
Aus Italien (From Italy) is the first published tone poem in four parts by Strauss, inspired by a trip through Italy. The opening pastoral Auf der Campagna (In the Campagna) shows the sunny Roman countryside. In Roms Ruinen (At the ruins of Rome) is set in the ancient Roman Forum and recalls the grandeur of days gone by, but its musical material does not justify its length of 12 minutes. Am Strande von Sorrent (On the beach at Sorrento) is a nocturnal adagio with beautiful orchestral colours, easily the best part of the work. After this, the finale Neapolitanisches Volksleben (Scenes from Neapolitan life), quoting the local song Funiculi Funicula, is simply disappointing. In the end, a very uneven first foray into the realm of symphonic poems, but its strong points still lift it to the "Good to have" verdict.
Don Juan op.20 (1888)
My version: Cleveland Orchestra/Maazel (CBS, 1979, 16 min)
My version: Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (RCA, 1991, 17 min)
His first major success as a composer, and deservedly so. Right from the tumultuous start, this composition is filled with melodic highlights (first and foremost the recurring main Don Juan theme and that love theme led by the oboe) and fascinating orchestral colours, with a flamboyance never heard before. And after all the action, it ends not with a bang, but with a whisper, like Don Juan himself. Brilliant. An astonishing work for a composer who at the time was only 24. Definitely a candidate for the honour of best symphonic poem of all time.
Macbeth op.23 (1888)
My version: Wiener Philharmoniker/Maazel (DG, 1983, 19 min)
An early effort: the first version dates from 1886 and is often quoted as his first tone poem. There is very little of Strauss as we know it here, nor is there much of the story of Macbeth to be honest - it could have been an average product of any second rate bombastic romantic composer instead. It definitely outstays its welcome by more than 10 minutes for me - although the final minute is actually quite good. Still, only for completionists, really.
Tod und Verklaerung op.24 (1889)
My version: Cleveland Orchestra/Maazel (CBS, 1979, 23 min)
Death and transfiguration, specifically of an artist, is the theme of this solemn tone poem, which shows more influence by Wagner than usual. It has moments of fascinating beauty (perhaps most in the transfiguration theme, which Strauss would quote 60 years later in his Four last songs), but also moments that seem too spectacular and brilliant for the subject. Yet, Strauss himself said to his daughter-in-law on his deathbed: "It's a funny thing Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklaerung."
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche op.28 (1895)
My version: Cleveland Orchestra/Maazel (CBS, 1979, 15 min)
My version: Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Berglund (RCA, 1991, 15 min)
The merry pranks of Till Eulenspiegel was originally meant to be an opera, and some of that comes back in the tone poem, which has more contrast in mood than usual. The themes are highly melodic and recognizable, and often intrinsically playful as fitting for the subject of the eternal prankster. The music takes us through his various pranks, his trial and execution - after which he still has the last laugh. This is film music before film was invented - I keep wondering why Disney did not include it in Fantasia. Without a doubt, this is one of the most important pieces in the history of the symphonic poem.
Also sprach Zarathustra op.30 (1896)
My version: Wiener Philharmoniker/Maazel (DG, 1983, 34 min)
Everybody knows the first 2 minutes of Thus spake Zarathustra, nobody the last 32 minutes. A bit of an exaggeration of course, but also not that far from the truth. The fabulous opening Sunrise fanfare has become as iconic as the starting notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony, appearing in movies, TV series and commercials all around the world. The eight parts that follow are loosely based on chapters of Nietsche's treatise of the same name - of all of Strauss' tone poems, this is the one that is the least programmatic. And definitely one of the very best.
Don Quixote op.35 (1897)
My version: Scottish National Orchestra/N.Jarvi with Raphael Wallfisch (Chandos, 1988, 44 min)
A unique specimen among the Strauss tone poems: set in theme and variations form, and with the main subjects (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) represented by one instrument each throughout (cello and viola). Excerpts from the Cervantes story are translated into music in the best Strauss tradition, sometimes witty (pizzicati suggesting the hero dripping wet after his boat sinks), sometimes hilarious (flutter-tongued woodwind representing the army of sheep he attacks), sometimes touching (DQ's death). Only the lack of really memorable melodic lines holds my appreciation back a little.
Ein Heldenleben op.40 (1898)
My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (EMI, 1975, 45 min)
The title translates as a hero's life - but with Strauss portraying himself as the hero, this work's premise does seem a bit too smug. The sections of the continuous composition are clearly marked, ranging from the hero and his wife, to his critics, his works for war and peace, and finally his retirement from the world. The most remarkable parts are the fitting musical description of his wife (represented by solo violin), in his own words "a very complex woman", and the hero's work for peace, which includes 30 themes from previous compositions in the space of 5 minutes - on the negative side we have the hero's works of war which is mainly noisy and far too long. Overall: competent but a tad uninspired.
Sinfonia Domestica op.53 (1903)
My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (EMI, 1974, 44 min)
Of all his symphonic poems, this is the one that was hardest to evaluate for me. I have been playing it non-stop five times in a row, and still the jury has trouble coming up with the final verdict. The four movements of this composition that is meant to describe the daily life of a young family have conventional names (Bewegt/Scherzo/Adagio/ Finale) which one could encounter on a regular late romantic symphony. The program itself is wafer thin, the descriptions are there in principle, from early notes (see the wiki link for details), but not really convincing - in the end I think I like this piece better as a symphony without program, rather than a symphonic poem.
Eine Alpensinfonie op.64 (1915)
My version: Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra/Mehta (Decca, 1976, 48 min)
Strauss' final symphonic poem, his longest, and perhaps his most ambitious, covering the climbing of a mountain, starting and ending at night. Strauss includes the typical parts of such a trip, the climbing the waterfall, the alpine pasture, struggling through thicket and undergrowth, the glacier, the summit, the view, the change in weather, the descent, the storm and finally the sunset. It is an amazing tour de force, in which he utilizes all colours available in the enlarged symphony orchestra - and more. Majestic and essential - even if in the end, I prefer some of the more condensed symphonic poems of 20-30 years before.
Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: Don Juan.
Essential: Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Eine Alpensinfonie.
Important: Tod und Verklaerung, Sinfonia Domestica.
Good to have: Aus Italien, Ein Heldenleben.
Not required: Macbeth.