December 22, 2005


Karel Komzák I and II: Waltzes, Marches and Polkas. Christian Pollack conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. Marco Polo. $9.99.

     The Strausses were not the only family members churning out delightful dance tunes in and around 19th-century Vienna.  From Lanner to Ziehrer, other composers with their own bands complemented and competed with Johann Sr. and Jr., Josef and Eduard.  In fact, there was one family that went the Strausses one better, at least generationally: the Komzáks, originally from southern Bohemia, later Prague, and still later Vienna itself.  All three – father (1823-1893), son (1850-1905) and grandson (1878-1924) – were named Karel or Karl.  And all three were composers – though it is not always clear who wrote which pieces, since Karel II, the most prolific, edited and possibly changed his father’s works, and it is not sure just where Karel II’s output ended and Karel III’s began.

     None of this matters to enjoyment of the Komzáks’ music, though, and it turns out that there is much to enjoy.  Saying that the Komzáks were not the equal of the Strausses is no insult – nobody was.  But the 13 works on this new CD, 10 by Karel II and three by Karel I, show a fine sense of rhythm, structure and joy that make them worthy of being much more widely known.

     The best pieces here are generally the shorter ones.  The marches are Sousa-ish – big, bold and brassy rather than having the ballroom style of the Strausses: this was a military family, and it shows.  Karel II’s Kaiser-Marsch, which won a competition at the 50th-anniversary jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph I in1898, is effective in its four-square way.  Karel I’s Feldzugmeister “Von Kuhn” Marsch, written to honor a distinguished military leader, is exceptionally marchable, with a strong beat.

     The best waltz here is the shortest: Karel II’s Petite Valse, whose gentle sweetness anticipates Lehár.  It lasts only five-and-a-half minutes and is more consistent than others that are nearly twice as long.  Karel II’s Warschauer Mäd’ln, for instance, has a good opening, but unusually long pauses in the middle and toward the end deprive it of a feeling of sweep and motion.  Similarly, Karel II’s Dein gedenk’ ich is episodic and lacks overall flow and cohesion.  Karel I’s Moldauwellen has a nice lilt, but do not look for a tone painting of the waves of the Moldau: the title, like the others here, is fanciful rather than directly related to the music.

     There are no fast polkas on this CD – only the slower Polka Mazurka and Polka Française forms.  The best is Karel II’s Maiblümchen, a delicate and bright work that nicely reflects its floral title.  All the remaining pieces have their attractive moments, even if none has a sustained tunefulness matching the best works of other composers of the Komzáks’ era.  Yet given the over-familiarity of some of the works by the Strauss family, it is a real pleasure to have high-quality, less-known music of the same type available for the dual pleasures of listening and discovery.

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