May 03, 2012


Walzer Revolution: Music of Mozart, Johann Strauss Sr. and Lanner. Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Sony. $15.98 (2 CDs).

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich conducted by David Zinman. RCA. $12.98.

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”); Rondo for Violin and Strings, D438; Polonaise for Violin and Orchestra, D580; Konzertstück for Violin and Orchestra, D345. Andreas Janke, violin; Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich conducted by David Zinman. RCA. $12.98.

      The development of the waltz is a fascinating one that few listeners and few conductors really think about.  Nikolaus Harnoncourt has thought about it and put together a fascinating two-CD set showing ways in which the famous 19th-century dance is firmly rooted in the 18th century, and in particular the German dances of Mozart.  Starting with three contredanses (K603/1 and K609/1 and 4), Harnoncourt moves on to the Six German Dances, K571, before proceeding to works by Johann Strauss Sr. and Joseph Lanner – who are usually deemed the founders of the waltz.  To be sure, they can be regarded as founders of Viennese waltz mania, but the derivation of the dance itself is more complicated.  Mozart wrote a large amount of dance music late in life (no one is quite sure why); he lived in Vienna at the time, so there is a direct geographical connection with the later Viennese waltz craze.  Harnoncourt finds a direct musical link as well, and emphasizes it by returning to the original instrumentation of all the Strauss and Lanner works he presents – some of which are well-known, but most of which are not.  The instrumentation is definitely not familiar, including features such as single rather than paired oboes and trumpets in unusual keys (E, A, low G or low A).  By returning to and painstakingly assembling the original-instrument versions of the Strauss and Lanner works, Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien give real meaning to the concept of historically informed performance, and in the process re-create a sound world that is much closer to Mozart’s than modern performances of 19th-century dance music usually are.  Every piece here is handled not only in appropriate period style but also with all the rhythmic vitality the composers intended.  The Strauss works include the well-known Radetzy-Marsch and Erste Kettenbrücke-Walzer, neither of which, however, typically sounds the way it does here, plus the less-familiar Schäfer-Quadrille, Der Carneval in Paris Galopp, and Walzer à la Paganini, a wonderful transformation of the now-ubiquitous La Campanella theme from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2.  As for Lanner, whose works are less frequently played than those of the Strauss family, he gets the entire second CD.  The nine works are Pas de neuf nach Saverio Mercadante, Sehnsuchts-Mazur, Hans Jörgel-Polka, Malapou-Galopp, Hexentanzwalzer, Marsch aus dem Ballet Corso Donati, Cerrito-Polka, Jagd-Galopp, and Die Schönbrunner Walzer.  Lanner and Strauss, onetime colleagues and later rivals, both died young – Lanner at 42 in 1843, Strauss at 45 in 1849 – and it was left to Strauss’ sons and their competitors to bring the waltz to its full flourishing.  But in terms of getting things started, of producing music tied to the 18th century but noticeably moving into a new era, Harnoncourt’s recording argues effectively that Strauss and Lanner were key.  So, of course, were Schubert and Weber, and it might have been even more interesting for Harnoncourt to have included some Haydn in this release – the rhythms of Haydn’s minuets and scherzos actually tie more directly to the later waltz than do Mozart’s dances – but that may be a matter for a future reconsideration and another new look at established musical forms.

      David Zinman also offers some new approaches in the first two recordings in his planned cycle of all the Schubert symphonies.  Zinman uses a modest-size orchestra – appropriate to that of Schubert’s time – and includes natural horns and natural trumpets, plus historical trombones in the “Unfinished.”  He also includes modest – and, again, historically appropriate – ornamentation, which leads to some deft and lovely touches, such as a flute solo in the finale of Symphony No. 1 and some attractive oboe decoration in the Trio of the third movement of Symphony No. 2.  In addition, Zinman takes the early symphonies as fully formed, even mature pieces, leading them with verve and spirit but without minimizing their potent dynamics and clever ways of meandering from key to key.  Schubert was indeed very young when he wrote his first symphony (16) and his second (17), but he had thoroughly absorbed the musical milieu of his time – Beethoven, for example, had already written his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies before Schubert finished his Symphony No. 1.  The expansiveness of these early symphonies is emphasized because Zinman, very wisely, takes all the repeats indicated in the scores; again, this is correct period practice as well as simple courtesy to the composer, who, after all, structured the music to include repeated sections.  Schubert’s handling of winds, even in his earliest symphonies, is very attractive – and quite different from wind use in other symphonic works of the time; and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich’s very fine wind section gets a real workout in these bright, fast-paced and altogether lovely and idiomatic performances.  Far from being mere juvenilia, Schubert’s first two symphonies emerge in these recordings as significant works in their own right, filled with interesting experiments in structure and key use, and adeptly orchestrated with a light touch that beautifully complements the fleetness of the outer movements and the pervasive melodic sweetness of Schubert’s themes.

      The second Zinman Schubert CD is a bit odd.  Its centerpiece is the most familiar of all Schubert’s symphonies, the “Unfinished,” which is here given the number 7 rather than the more familiar 8.  But there is a Schubert Seventh, which exists only in short score but has received several completions and occasional performances, so the number 8 for the “Unfinished” makes more sense; besides, the “Great C Major” is by far better known as No. 9 than as No. 8 – which is how it must be designated if the “Unfinished” is No. 7.  Confusing, to be sure; and even more so in light of the fact that the “Unfinished” is not really the “Unfinished,” being only one of several symphonic fragments on which Schubert worked without ever producing a full four-movement symphony.  The numbering and sequencing issues are mainly of academic and musicological interest, but there is certainly no doubt about the importance of the “Unfinished” as we know it today.  Never performed in Schubert’s lifetime, it represents a major step beyond his six early symphonies – although, it should be noted, no more so than the short score of the real No. 7 does.  After creating his first six symphonies, Schubert was clearly reaching out in new ways to untried forms and structures, and it is this that the “Unfinished” shows most clearly.  Zinman does a particularly fine job of contrasting the two completed movements (parts of a third exist but are rarely played).  In a number of ways, these movements are very similar despite their differing tempo indications; some conductors pull the Allegro moderato and Andante con moto so close together in tempo that they sound like a single extended (and almost Brucknerian) movement.  But this is not what Schubert planned, and by drawing a clear tempo contrast between the movements, Zinman effectively highlights their differences while also bringing out the long, singing lines and structural and dynamic similarities that they share.  This results in a highly effective performance and a very well-played one.  The oddity of the CD lies not in the symphony but in the remainder of the CD: three works for violin and orchestra (or strings), none of them particularly well-known and none of them major Schubert.  The idea seems to be to pair the symphony with an almost-concerto – Schubert never wrote a concerto for violin or, in fact, for any other instrument, and these three pieces are about as close as he ever came to the form.  Both the Rondo and the Konzertstück feature extended slow introductions followed by quick, virtuosic sections.  The works are filled with typically beautiful melodies from this most melodically gifted of composers, but it is easy to hear their superficialities, such as the rather formulaic virtuoso passages in the Rondo and the attractively orchestrated but somewhat overdone pomposity in the first part of the Konzertstück.  Both these pieces were written for Schubert’s older brother, Ferdinand, as was the Polonaise, which is not the more-familiar dramatic and colorful dance form used by Tchaikovsky and other composers later in the 19th century, but a milder and more-modest dance in rather superficial trappings.  Although not exactly salon music – it uses the full orchestra, and uses it well – the Polonaise is fairly inconsequential, without even the virtuosity required for the Rondo and Konzertstück.  It is nevertheless quite pleasant to hear, and is beautifully performed by Andreas Janke, as are the other violin works.  For all Janke’s skill and all the tunefulness of these three violin pieces, though, they are unassuming works, enjoyable enough but rather peculiarly paired with the forward-looking complexities of the “Unfinished” symphony.  There is little to fault in the performances on this CD, but the musical mixture itself is, at the least, a touch unusual.

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