November 10, 2005


The Very Best of Strauss. Alfred Walter conducting the Slovak State Philharmonic, Kosice. Naxos. $12.99 (2 CDs).

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5. Kurt Masur conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. LPO. $16.99 (SACD).

     The attempt to reduce classical music to a series of “best of” anthologies is almost as old as the recording medium itself.  It is an attempt that is always slightly tasteless and ultimately impossible: Classical music is not inherently short-form, so excerpting much longer works to give listeners snippets of sound not only misrepresents the works and their composers but also guarantees disappointment for any listeners who actually like the sound bites and want to hear more.  What they hear will require far more patience and focus than the tidbits ever do.

     Still, there are a very few composers for whom the “best of” approach is actually a pretty good one.  Among 10 new “Very Best of” two-CD sets from Naxos, in addition to ones featuring the usual impossible-to-encapsulate composers (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Mozart, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi), is one whose subject fits the format particularly well: Johann Strauss Jr.  Although he did write 16 operettas, Strauss worked primarily in dance forms and wrote mostly short works.  These two CDs of his music – 25 tracks in all – really do give a good idea of his music and really can serve as a legitimate introduction to the rest of his oeuvre.  Alfred Walter’s conducting is a touch pedestrian – one wishes for more of the Viennese “snap” that seems to be second nature to such conductors as Willi Boskovsky – but every performance here is quite respectable, and the orchestra plays well.  Included are the overtures to Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, such wonderful polkas as the Pizzicato, Tritsch-Tratsch and Thunder and Lightning, and of course the marvelous waltzes: Blue Danube, Voices of Spring, Roses from the South, Emperor and others (though Walter does better with most of the polkas than with most of the waltzes).  Four vocal tracks – from Die Fledermaus, Der Zigeunerbaron and Eine Nacht in Venedig – provide a sampling of Strauss’ stage works, whose effervescence will not disappoint listeners who hear them for the first time in this format.

     If someone had to choose a “very best” sampling of Shostakovich, the First and Fifth Symphonies (both intact, please!) would have to be included.  Outstanding sound on the London Philhamonic’s own SACD label is a major attraction of the live performances led by Kurt Masur.  The extremely clear sound is evident from the start of the First Symphony, as in the staccato-vs.-legato sections of the first movement.  The clarinets are especially good here and in the second movement – which, however, flags a bit in the middle.  The brass-heavy dissonances of the third movement and the solo violin near the movement’s conclusion both benefit from the extreme clarity of the sound.  So do the highly dramatic full-orchestra section near the start of the finale and the perfectly quiet pause before the timpani solo close to the end.  The performance as a whole is a very good one, though Masur seems not to bring a clear overview to the work – which admittedly does not have a single cohesive point of view.  Also, the top-notch sound does produce some oddities: audience rustling between movements and Masur occasionally stamping the podium.

     The sound is equally good in the Fifth Symphony, and the performance is even better.  The strings have real bite in the first movement, which flows well.  Brass and flutes sound especially clear.  In the second movement, both individual voices and ensemble passages are very effective.  The slow third movement features very beautiful strings and a lovely, ethereal flute.  The always problematical finale – just how triumphant should it sound? – starts at moderate tempo, with a feeling of success at overcoming obstacles.  But Masur takes the last few minutes at a very slow pace indeed, as if everything that has gone before is running out of steam.  This is a somewhat unusual approach, but Masur makes it a convincing one – and the orchestra plays at its very best throughout.

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