February 09, 2006


Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 7. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. Marco Polo. $9.99.

British Tuba Concertos: Vaughan Williams, Gregson, Steptoe, Golland. James Gourlay, tuba; Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. Naxos. $8.99.

     Taking a few steps off the musical beaten path is by no means a walk on the wild side – it is simply a stroll along, as Robert Frost put it, “the road less traveled.”  There can be great enjoyment in going beyond the standard classical repertoire and exploring some byways.

     Johann Strauss Sr. did not count as a byway in 19th-century Vienna, but his fame was eventually eclipsed by that of his eldest son, and Strauss Sr.’s music – much of it quite delightful – is heard today less often than it deserves.  Marco Polo has been redressing this balance with its ongoing edition of Strauss Sr.’s works, and the seventh volume contains some gems.  There are six waltzes here, interspersed with shorter pieces: four galops and a march.  The result would be pleasant listening even if the works were of uneven quality.  But they are all well made, well orchestrated and charming, albeit in different ways.  The waltz Mittel gegen den Schlaf (“Cure for Sleep”) lives up to its name with a Presto introduction and several fast dance sections.  Erinnerung an Pesth (“Souvenir of Pest”) is dedicated to “the noble Hungarian people” and uses a Hungarian Lassu to introduce its Vienna-style waltzes.  Erinnerung an Berlin (“Souvenir of Berlin”) celebrates a risky tour (in light of the geopolitical situation) that Strauss took to Berlin, during which the composer earned both praise and handsome gifts – not only from the Prussian nobility but also from the Tsar of Russia, himself visiting Berlin at the time.  Among the galops, Jugendfeuer (“Fire of Youth”) is notable for speed and spirit, and Cachucha for castanets and overall verve.  Strauss once wrote, “I have nothing to do with [journalists] calling me an artist, a thing I never posed as.  The harmony of all united in joy is my only aim.”  The latest CD of Strauss Sr.’s music – wonderfully played by Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Ernst Märzendorfer – shows, once again, how well the elder Strauss aimed.

     Farther off the beaten path than Strauss Sr., and of more serious mien, the four tuba concertos by 20th-century British composers bring to the forefront an unwieldy instrument that rarely gets its due.  The tuba has been used to exceptional effect by Berlioz, Wagner and Shostakovich (a muted tuba is a highlight of his Symphony No. 8).  And it has been an instrument of fun – literally – in the hands of famed caricaturist and tuba player Gerard Hoffnung, who once arranged a Chopin delicacy for tuba quartet.  Rarely, however, has the tuba been used as a traditional solo instrument in a concerto.  Vaughan Williams’ concerto in F Minor, written in 1954 (when the composer was 82), is a classic of its kind.  Easy to listen to and formally rather old-fashioned, it is a highly musicianly showpiece.  The other works on Naxos’ new CD are more recent.  Edward Gregson’s was written in 1978, originally for tuba with brass band, and pays brief homage to Vaughan Williams’ earlier work before taking off on its own.  The dancelike but not quite danceable finale is a highlight.  Roger Steptoe’s 12-tone work dates to 1983 and was originally three pieces for tuba and piano.  It is both song-like and virtuosic, with a cadenza linking the second and third movements.  John Golland’s concerto was first performed as recently as 1997, though written during the 1980s.  Its finale, partly written in 7/8 time, is particularly interesting.  None of these works can be easy to play, but James Gourlay handles them all with aplomb, with Gavin Sutherland and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia providing clear and nuanced backup.

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