December 27, 2012
(++++) A PERPETUAL NEW YEAR’S PRESENT
Johann Strauss Jr.: The Complete Orchestral Edition. Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Košice conducted by Alfred Walter, Richard Edlinger, Oliver Dohnányi, Johannes Wildner and Christian Pollack; Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra, Katowice conducted by Oliver Dohnányi and Johannes Wildner; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Johannes Wildner, Alfred Eschwé, Michael Dittrich, Franz Bauer-Theussl, Jerome D. Cohen and Gerhard Track; Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Guth; with Bratislava City Choir; Marilyn Hill Smith, soprano; Slovak Philharmonic Choir; Vienna Männergesang-Verein. Naxos. $149.99 (52 CDs).
There are plenty of good and sufficient reasons for associating Johann Strauss Jr. with the new year, for performing Die Fledermaus consistently as one year ends and another begins (even though the operetta has nothing to do with the changing of the year), for making Strauss the centerpiece of Vienna’s famous New Year’s Concerts and their many imitators all around the world. More than any other composer, Strauss repeatedly and consistently suggests hope for the future, a celebratory attitude toward life in general, a perpetuum mobile of dances and fireworks. Strauss’ own life was by no means as trouble-free as his music, but so brilliantly did he separate the personal from the professional that it is unimaginable, listening to his music, to think that it might have been composed in anything other than high spirits. Yet Strauss’ brother Eduard ordered the entire Strauss Orchestra archive burned in 1907, and some works by Johann Jr. are therefore irretrievably lost. What prompted Eduard to such excess is a matter for biographers and historians, not musicians, but the fact is that Johann Jr.’s music creates and affirms a world where, by and large, only good things are in the future. A new year’s present indeed.
Naxos’ amazing 52-CD compilation of all of the Strauss non-stage music was a labor of love when begun in 1987, and the boxed set of discs originally released on the Marco Polo label is a collection that any listener can live with for the rest of his or her life. There is just so much here, not only in familiar music but also in equally delightful works that are almost completely unknown. There are multiple versions of famed pieces: On the Beautiful Blue Danube, the most famous of all, appears three times on different CDs, including in its original version with male chorus; likewise, the well-known Bei uns z’Haus is offered both with chorus and without. But there are so many ways to search and enjoy this collection! For instance, why not leave the Danube for a while and visit the Elbe, Moldau and Volga? Strauss wrote music for all those rivers. Why not get a sense of how the Strauss style evolved over time, by listening to works in sequences of opus numbers? One of the multiple indexes provided with this set makes that possible – although it does require a lot of CD changing, since that is not how the discs were arranged.
Ah, the arrangement of CDs. That is an enduring puzzle of this wonderful set, since there is no particular order to the pieces on any CD, to the use of conductors or orchestras, or indeed to any element of the production. This is, on the one hand, frustrating for anyone wishing to listen to Strauss in an organized fashion; but it is, on the other hand, a great invitation to serendipity, to listening to the intermingling of the familiar and unfamiliar on a given CD or among various ones, to choosing a disc entirely at random and coming up with something expected, unexpected or both. Listeners who do want to analyze the performances will find some differences among the conductors. Alfred Walter, who began the project, tends to be matter-of-fact and even at times a touch on the stodgy side, for example, while Christian Pollack is thoroughly immersed in the spirit of the music and offers readings filled with upbeat zest. Yet the distinctions are minor ones: it is not that Strauss’ music “plays itself” or does not require a conductor’s presence, but that the notes flow so inexorably one to the next, and communicate their infectious enthusiasm so readily, that all the orchestra leaders here are able to extract the essence of Strauss’ wonderfulness.
And this music is wonderful. Strauss is still sometimes referred to dismissively as a great composer of light music, likely by people who do not realize that Brahms, when asked for his autograph, once wrote down a few bars of the Blue Danube Waltz with the wry comment that they were unfortunately not by him. Strauss was a master tunesmith, a superb craftsman, a fine orchestra leader and the undisputed king of a certain type of music that has brought tremendous joy and joie de vivre to millions of people – and shows no sign of losing popularity in the more-than-a-century since the composer’s death. Whenever a year ends and a new one begins, it makes sense to do our best to look ahead with hope that the future will be better than the past, that the uncertain events still to come will surpass our expectations and deliver pleasures yet unknown and yet unexperienced. That is precisely what Johann Strauss Jr.: The Complete Orchestral Edition delivers: voluminous pleasures of all types, beautifully constructed and presented in solid and often top-notch performances, a cornucopia – horn of plenty – of musical pleasure not to be found anywhere else. This is one CD set whose pleasures neither cloy nor diminish with time. It is truly a gift not for the new year but for all new years.