April 23, 2020
(++++) MUSICAL EXCAVATIONS
Johann Strauss Jr.: Blindekuh. Robert Davidson, Kirsten C. Kunkle, Martina Bortolotti, Roman Pichler, James Bowers, Andrea Chudak, Daniel Schliewa, Emily K. Byrne, Julian Rohde; Sofia Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Vivaldi: Concerti per violino VIII (“Il teatro”), RV 187, 217, 235, 321, 366, and 387. Julien Chauvin, violin and conducting Le Concert de la Loge. Naïve. $16.99.
Johann Strauss Jr. had the most mundane of reasons for wanting to write stage works: there was a lot more money to be made from them than from his world-famous, enormously popular dance concerts in Vienna and elsewhere. And the idea of stringing together numerous polkas, waltzes, and other popular forms into a single extended work must have seemed, on the face of it, a reasonably easy path to greater profitability for what was, after all, the Strauss family business. All this may explain the notable lack of success of Strauss’ operettas: they are indeed packed with wonderful tunes, but Strauss did not have a very good sense of what would engage a theatrical audience, so he accepted, again and again, libretti that ranged from the serviceable to the execrable. Even Die Fledermaus, his most popular work by far, is oddly structured, with a climactic third act that is almost entirely spoken rather than sung. And Der Zigeunerbaron, his second-most-popular work, although its libretto is passable, has elements that do not quite gel and tend to lapse into incoherence. Strauss was by no means the only 19th-century composer to suffer from subpar libretti, which have afflicted operas for hundreds of years. But perhaps because the musical snippets in which he specialized offered no way to overcome the extended incoherence of the plots, Strauss’ stage works were notable again and again for their failure to sustain audience interest. And that was the case with Blindekuh (“Blind Cow,” the game known in English as “Blind Man’s Buff”), a work from 1878 that closed after 16 performances and disappeared until Dario Salvi revived it in a concert version in January 2019. The overture and five dance works that Strauss drew from Blindekuh have retained some popularity, indicating that the music here is not the problem – a fact confirmed by the new Naxos recording made from live performances under Salvi’s direction. The operetta’s plot is ridiculously over-complicated and difficult to follow, the libretto having been written by Rudolf Kneisel (1832-1899) based on his own stage work – a kind of Molière bedroom farce without the bedrooms and without French witticism. Essentially, there are a series of misunderstandings and mis-identifications of characters, some engineered and some accidental, until everybody is happy at the end. Under the circumstances, the fact that Salvi’s performance contains no dialogue is probably a good thing, since listeners get a chance to hear an hour and 45 minutes of first-class Strauss tunes, and some delicious vocal writing, without being encumbered by any attempt to understand the mishmash of what is going on. All the typical elements of Strauss operettas are here in abundance: couplets and choruses, dalliances and duets, and some deceptions that are silly enough to remain funny, such as one character’s fanciful description of life in America, from which he is pretending to have come. The game of Blindekuh does not fit the action in any particularly significant way, but it is used as an important plot device at the end of Act II, allowing a scene of mass confusion in which one character suddenly recognizes his wife and a court officer demands that another character reveal his true identity (which does not happen). More importantly, the Blindekuh scene gives Strauss an opportunity to offer one of those wonderful waltzes that seemed to flow unceasingly from him – a waltz whose tune first appears in the operetta’s overture, is heard in full as part of the big Act II conclusion, and then unites the whole work musically when it returns at the end of Act III. Strauss may have had little ability in choosing libretti for his stage works, but he consistently produced music that remains worth hearing even though the plots that the music is designed to further are eminently forgettable. And so it is with Blindekuh. The singers are all quite fine and all actually sound as if they are enjoying themselves in delivering this frothy bit of comedy. And Salvi leads the production with genuine enthusiasm, pacing all the music sensibly and sensitively and eliciting fine singing from the chorus and delightfully bouncy playing from the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. It is highly unlikely that Blindekuh will ever become a significant component of the Strauss stage pantheon, but the overture and five instrumental pieces that the composer drew from it will likely continue to enchant audiences, as they should from a strictly musical standpoint. And this very fine recording, by giving audiences a chance to know the context in which the instrumental material originally appeared, is worthy of Strauss lovers’ celebration.
There is plenty of digging-up still to be done among the works of even the best-known composers. Naïve has been doing this for nearly two decades in a series of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin. The 63rd Vivaldi Edition release is the eighth to focus on concertos for Vivaldi’s own instrument, the violin, and as in all the earlier releases, it contains some wonderful music and some excellent period-instrument playing – here by a violinist and ensemble not heard before in this long-running series. Julien Chauvin and Le Concert de la Loge are poised, even elegant in their handling of the six concertos on this CD – and as always, although the concertos follow Vivaldi’s familiar three-movement pattern, each has its own unique character and its own particular pleasures. RV 187, in C, has a strong stop-and-start opening with judiciously placed rests that give the music an emphatic character that contrasts well with the ornamental solo part. RV 217, in D, has a slow movement whose opening has an almost eerie, ghostly sound. RV 235, in D minor, has a particularly heartfelt slow movement. RV 321, in G minor, opens with ensemble flourishes that contrast strongly with solo passages, and has a finale that is more than usually intense. RV 366, in B-flat, has a slow movement that opens with a plaintive solo that could pass muster in one of Vivaldi’s operas. And RV 387, in B minor, has a slow movement in which the soloist offers an extended aria-like presentation as the ensemble provides ostinato-like backup – after which the stormy finale brings the work to a decidedly dramatic close. Listeners will discover their own highlights in all these works, and there are plenty of literally noteworthy elements in all of them. Here as elsewhere in the Vivaldi Edition, the performers show that historically informed performance practice need not mean persnickety attention to minor details, or an overly academic approach to the music in the name of authenticity. Careful attention to 18th-century style is certainly present, but the overarching purpose here is to bring forth what Vivaldi wanted his music to communicate to an audience. The quality of that communication has not diminished over the centuries, with this recording and its predecessors doing a wonderful job of giving music lovers the feeling that they are encountering the concertos, if not necessarily for the first time, then in a new and thoroughly captivating way.