January 30, 2014
(+++) AN EXTRAVAGANCE OF STRAUSSIANA
Johann Strauss Jr.: Die Fledermaus; Eine Nacht in Venedig; Der Zigeunerbaron; Simplicius; Wiener Blut. Chor der Wiener Staatsoper in der Volksoper and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Willi Boskovsky (Fledermaus); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Symphonie-Orchester Graunke conducted by Franz Allers (Venedig); Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper München conducted by Franz Allers (Zigeunerbaron); Chor und Kinderchor des Opernhauses Zürich and Orchester der Oper Zürich conducted by Franz Welser-Möst (Simplicius); Chor der Kölner Oper, Wiener Schrammeln and Philharmonia Hungarica conducted by Willi Boskovsky (Blut). Warner. $38.99 (10 CDs).
It is hard to decide whether to set off celebratory fireworks or to pound one’s head against the wall in frustration at this re-release of recordings of five Strauss operettas. On the one hand, the set brings together four good-to-outstanding analog recordings: Die Fledermaus from 1972, Eine Nacht in Venedig from 1967, Der Zigeunerbaron from 1969, and Wiener Blut from 1976, and packages them with a digital recording – indeed, the world première recording – of Simplicius from 1999. The sound ranges from very good to exemplary, and the singing is idiomatic and features some of the best operetta performers of recent times: the ubiquitous and ever-smooth Nicolai Gedda, Anneliese Rothenberger, Renate Holm, Hermann Prey, Piotr Beczala, and even Grace Bumbry. And the pricing of the set is simply wonderful.
On the other hand, the whole box smacks of a bargain-basement approach to music that deserves much, much better. Even the old EMI boxed re-releases were handled with more care than this: for instance, a seven-operetta Lehár collection listed all the tracks on every CD in the enclosed booklet and presented scene-by-scene summations of the works. Not so this Warner release. Librettos for the operettas may be too much to hope for – although links to places where they could be found online would have been a huge help to listeners, especially when it comes to such a rarity as Simplicius – but here listeners never even find out what the works are about, each operetta being reduced to a single-paragraph summation that is completely inadequate and disappointing in the extreme. Truncated track lists appear only on the backs of the cardboard CD sleeves (each of which, ironically, says “see booklet for details,” although no such details are given). And those track listings are riddled with errors and sloppiness that ought to embarrass a world-class music company. For example, all eight references to numbers sung by soldiers in Simplicius misspell the word as “soliders,” and the word “prisoners” is misspelled “prisonsers” as a bonus. This is beyond sloppy: it is insulting to the music and those interested in it.
Yet there is so much to be interested in that it is difficult to stay angry for long at the disappointingly poor packaging of this set. Willi Boskovsky was one of the great Strauss interpreters, and was in his prime when he recorded this Die Fledermaus and Wiener Blut. The works zip along smartly, the tempos are judiciously chosen, the singing is uniformly of high quality, and the music – which, after all, is the point here – is just wonderful. It is worth remembering that Strauss got into theater not for any grandiose reasons but because he was looking for a steady source of income that would not require him, personally, to be present constantly as violinist/conductor. This helps explain why the librettos of his operettas were so often execrable, in contrast to the marvelous tunes with which he bedecked the insipid and often-confusing words. Of course, English speakers will have no luck following the operettas’ dialogue, which is frequently extensive and is crucial to the stage experience: the spoken parts tend to advance the action, while the musical ones comment on it. But, again, it is the music that provides the joy here, and there is much joy to be had. Indeed, there is somewhat more enjoyment than the operetta titles themselves indicate, since several of these particular performances include interpolations from other Strauss operettas. This Die Fledermaus, for example, omits the Act II ballet or any of the various substitutes for it usually offered, but gives Falke an aria from Waldmeister, while this Eine Nacht in Venedig includes so many interpolations, mostly from Ralph Benatzky's Strauss-based 1928 Casanova, that it is practically a pastiche. Wiener Blut, of course, is a pastiche, assembled at the end of Strauss’ life from music by him and his brother, Josef, and first performed some five months after Johann’s death.
The performances led by Franz Allers do not have quite the sparkle of those conducted by Boskovsky, but Allers too has a fine sense of pacing and balance, and this Eine Nacht in Venedig and Der Zigeunerbaron are wonderfully tuneful trifles packed with delightful numbers. As for Simplicius, it is a work that sounds far more familiar than its extreme rarity on stage would indicate, since Strauss used its music in a number of other works that are played considerably more frequently. It is an unusually serious operetta with an even-more-than-usually complicated plot and much of the flavor of a stage play with musical elements included from time to time: numerous scenes contain no music at all and are omitted from the recording. Franz Welser-Möst does not have the sort of easy comfort with this music that Boskovsky and Allers possessed, but his performance is creditable, well-paced and sung adequately, even though the soloists here are not in the same league as the excellent ones in the other operettas. Having Simplicius available at all is a joy for Strauss fans, and having it available in what is overall a very fine performance is a bonus. Add in the wonders of the older analog recordings and you have here a set that will bring great musical pleasure for a great many years – even as it keeps reminding you, through its frustrating imperfections, of how much better it could have been.