March 01, 2007


Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 10. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. Marco Polo. $9.99.

The neglect of the works of Johann Strauss Sr. after his death at age 45 in 1849 is understandable only because two of his sons, Johann Jr. and Josef, were able to replace and expand upon their father’s dance music with nary a missed beat. The third son, Eduard, added occasional pieces as well. It was Josef who was in some ways the best composer, but it was Johann Jr. who truly eclipsed his namesake by melding symphonic structure to dance and providing even more joy than his father had. Still, even if the sons’ work tended to surpass their father’s, Johann Sr.’s compositions do not deserve the near-total neglect they suffered for many years, as is becoming clearer with every release in the excellent Marco Polo series devoted to the elder Strauss.

This 10th volume showcases the unremittingly youthful pep and bounce of 10 works written when the composer was in his 30s, as conducted by the excellent Ernst Märzendorfer, who is now in his 80s – which you would never know from the verve of the performances here. The best pieces on this CD are the longer ones, primarily the waltzes. Best of all is Die Nachtwandler (“The Sleepwalkers”), which starts with a sleepy horn opening, offers several unexpected turns of phrase, dips into the minor at surprising points, and ends quietly – as if everyone has returned to peaceful slumber. Strauss’ contemporaries thought this work had something to do with Bellini’s opera, La Sonnambula, but Strauss said no; and the work stands very well on its own.

Other top-notch waltzes here are the light, lilting and lovely Künstler-Ball-Tänze (“Artists’ Ball Dances”); Erinnerung an Deutschland (“Reminiscence of Germany”), which features a trumpet call and some interesting horn colorations; the expansive and broad-themed Heimath-Klänge (“Home Country Sounds”); and the impressive Krönungs-Walzer (“Coronation Waltz”), whose brass fanfares and booming timpani contrast pleasantly with a succession of delicate string themes.

      Also highly effective is the final work on the CD, Wiener Carnevals-Quadrille (“Vienna Carnival Quadrille”), which is as long as a waltz and consists entirely of original themes – most quadrilles at this time, including those by Strauss, were pastiches of popular tunes. The rousing opening and striking instrumentation of this rarely heard work make it a real treat.

      The other quadrille here, Jubel-Quadrille (“Anniversary Quadrille”), is bright and flashy, with lots of percussion – appropriate for a celebration of the name-day of Empress Maria Anna. The tunes are not especially distinguished, except at the end, which neatly foreshadows Strauss’ later and far more famous Radetzky March.

      The three remaining works on this CD are Cotillons nach Motiven der Oper “Die Hugenotten” (“Cotillons on Motifs from the Opera The Huguenots”), which gives Meyerbeer’s themes their due but is not especially interesting in itself; Beliebte Sperl-Polka (“Popular Sperl Polka”), which is easy to dance to but otherwise undistinguished; and Original Parade-Marsch (“Original Parade March”), which is appropriately brassy and martial – and has a second theme with the tang of Sousa.

      The biggest flaw of this disk is actually a flaw of the entire series: there is no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the pieces on the CDs, or the inclusion of them in one volume rather than another. Nothing is chronological or linked by theme, except once in a while by apparent accident. The result is a disorganized feeling to this compendium of Strauss works – which, however, does nothing to diminish their substantial charm.

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