October 19, 2006


Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 9. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

     In Marco Polo’s latest volume of the works of Johann Strauss Sr., we find the composer at the top of his form – attuned equally to the musical styles of the day and to its political realities.  Nearly every work on this CD is a winner, filled with charm and gaiety and that unique Straussian lilt that set his works apart from those of his contemporary and sometime rival, Joseph Lanner.  Yet there is more than music here: there is a touch of the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mid-1800s.  Again and again, we find these Strauss pieces prepared for and dedicated to a Habsburg nobility increasingly interested in distracting the populace from the revolutionary currents taking form in Europe by encouraging people to dance, celebrate and make merry at every opportunity.

     Thus, the majestic Huldigungs-Walzer (“Tribute Waltz”) was a homage to newly installed Emperor Ferdinand I; the Grazien-Tänze (“Dances for the Graces”) were dedicated to the wife of the powerful State Chancellor, Prince Metternich; the Philomelen-Walzer (“Philomel Waltz”) was dedicated to a princess who was a fine singer and known as the Nightingale of Baden, her home town; and so on.

     Even more interestingly for modern listeners, many of Strauss Sr.’s works drew heavily on the favorite operas of his time – and on other then-well-known music, too.  Musikalischer Telegraph 5, by far the longest work on this new CD, shows this especially clearly: it is a potpourri that starts with Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra overture, ends with a touch of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and in the middle tosses out bits of Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Hèrold, Auber, Mozart and a number of Strauss Sr.’s own works.  It sounds a bit like the sort of thing Peter Schickele came up with when he created “P.D.Q. Bach,” but it is so tuneful, fast-moving and elegantly structured that it comes across as a tribute, not a parody.

     Other, shorter works here focus on themes taken from individual composers and developed in Straussian style.  The Furioso-Galopp, on themes by Franz Liszt, is especially effective, as are two galops based on music from Meyerbeer’s famous Les Huguenots.  (Speaking of the place where politics and music intersect, one of these is called the “Ghibelline Galop,” because Viennese censors would not at first let Meyerbeer’s work appear until the libretto was revised and the title was changed to The Ghibellines in Pisa.)

     Of the remaining three works on this 10-track CD, the “Wings of Mercury Waltz” is the only disappointment – it is simply ordinary, if pleasant enough.  The “Indian Galop” has nothing to do either with India or with American Indians, but is simply a somewhat exotic-sounding quickstep.  And the Gedanken-Striche Walzer (“Dash Waltz”), whose name was picked by the audience that first heard it, is smooth, cheerful and effective – three adjectives that not only describe Strauss Sr. at his best but also apply to the excellent playing that his works consistently receive at the hands of Christian Pollack and the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina.

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