May 11, 2006


Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 8. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Tchaikovsky: Dances and Overtures. National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Naxos. $8.99.

     The music of the Strauss family symbolized the brightly optimistic elements of 19th-century Vienna in much the same way that the music of Tchaikovsky symbolized the darker, doom-laden side of 19th-century Russia.  The contrasting characters of the dance music of Johann Strauss Sr. and Tchaikovsky make this perfectly clear.

     The eighth volume in Marco Polo’s excellent Johann Strauss I Edition presents 10 more of Strauss Sr.’s works from the 1830s.  Some of them are real gems.  It also includes two pieces that have been attributed to Strauss Sr. in the past but that are almost certainly not by him, though they partake of some of his style.  As usual in this series, the works on this CD have varying levels of interest – although all are worth hearing as less-known examples of Vienna’s golden age of dance music.  One fine piece here is the waltz Der Frohsinn, mein Ziel (“Gaiety Is My Aim”), whose title is a fine encapsulation of Strauss Sr.’s overall attitude toward his music.  Robert-Tänze, on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, and Elisabethen-Walzer, a top-notch work that Johann Strauss Jr. also performed in later years, are two additional highlights.  And Gitana-Galopp is one of Strauss Sr.’s best short-form works.  The other pieces here have more curiosity value than intrinsic musical worth – for example, it is interesting that Ballnacht-Galopp uses themes from Auber’s Le bal masqué, but the work itself is too straightforward to command substantial interest.  Christian Pollack, however, approaches all these pieces as if they are minor masterpieces, fully bringing out whatever value they have in terms of verve, tunefulness and bright spirit.  And the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina plays, as usual, with idiomatic virtuosity.

     The dances and other works on the Tchaikovsky CD are also very well played, but their purpose is quite different from that of Strauss Sr.  All these works but one come from operas, and their aim is to set the mood – usually a dark one, or a bright one designed as a contrast to the darkness in the preceding or succeeding scene.  Two dances come from Tchaikovsky’s only comic opera, Cherevichki, and are part of an entertainment before the Devil (a comic one, but the Devil nonetheless) arrives.  Two dances and an entr’acte are from The Maid of Orleans, Tchaikovsky’s version of the Joan of Arc legend, and range from hymnal to grotesque in content.  Also here are a dance and the introduction to The Enchantress, a tale of betrayal and death by poisoning; a Gopak from Mazeppa, representing a few minutes of entertainment in a historical story of betrayal and death; and dances from The Oprichnik, which occur during a wedding celebration that is followed by betrayal and death.  There is little lightness in Tchaikovsky’s operas – certainly not in The Queen of Spades or The Voyevoda, whose overtures are on this CD.  The former remains in the repertoire as a dark tale of gambling addiction and murder; the latter, Tchaikovsky’s first opera, was destroyed by the composer but has since been re-created, and features some especially interesting scoring.  The sole non-operatic work here is the symphonic poem Fatum, also destroyed by Tchaikovsky (after Balakirev strongly criticized it) and subsequently re-created.  The free-form piece is dark throughout, but it too has skillful orchestration and a fair degree of dramatic tension – being, like Tchaikovsky’s dances, farther from the world of Strauss Sr.’s Vienna than mere geography would indicate.

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