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Label : Marco Polo
Format : Flac (image + cue)
Cover : Full

If you love light music, then this set represents the mother lode. I was hoping it would come back in a nice, compact box, and Naxos has very kindly obliged. You may not think that anyone needs 52 CDs of waltzes, polkas, gallops, and marches, but let’s face it: no one needs 107 Haydn symphonies, 40-some-odd Chopin Mazurkas, several dozen Mozart piano concertos, a billion Bach cantatas—you name it. If you’re a serious collector, then sets such as this represent landmarks in the history of recordings. To be absolutely correct, not everything is here (the complete Cinderella ballet, released on Decca, isn’t included, though some of its various numbers are here), but I’m not kvetching about it.

Well then, you might argue, everyone’s got a disc of Strauss Jr. stuff, either a New Year’s Concert or some other Vienna Philharmonic production. Back in the day, just about every major orchestra and conductor had at least one Strauss Jr. (or Strauss family) disc to their credit. But that was then. Now they do Mahler cycles instead. None of the orchestras here is famous, and neither are the conductors (ten of them). None of them are “great” in the traditional sense. But all of them get the job done, most of them very well. These recordings were made because Eastern European orchestras were available on the cheap after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and Naxos (then Marco Polo) was smart to take advantage of the opportunity.

The playing is never less than good, sometimes marvelous—and more to the point, characterful. You can sample anywhere, but check out the waltz “Enjoy Life” (“Freuet euch des Lebens”), borrowed by Mahler in the first movement of his Ninth Symphony. In these days of “authenticity” you might argue that the sharp, sometimes edgy timbre of these ensembles is no less idiomatic than what Strauss’ own orchestra typically offered. Certainly anyone who claims to love the cold, dry sound of most period-instrument ensembles, next to which these forces are positively voluptuous, has no basis on which to deny the stylistic legitimacy of the performances on offer here. Sure, you can do better in the more famous waltzes and overtures, but then go find the other 47 discs of music played by the Vienna Philharmonic.

As to the music itself, Strauss Jr. was of course a master of his chosen medium, and he had the brains to stick to it. His fund of melodies was endless, distinctive, and invariably danceable. And there is more “concert music” here than you might think. The many waltzes and quadrilles (the latter often based on famous operatic tunes of the day) are not only delicious potpourris; they stand on their own as independent works. Why? Because they aren’t boring, and ultimately that is the only criterion that really matters. Indeed, the occasional perfunctory march or gallop notwithstanding, there’s more musical substance here than in many classical ballets. So if you have any interest in this music at all, you can purchase this set with confidence. Don’t listen systematically; just dip in at random now and then. You’ll be amazed at how much pleasure the music will give you. It’s an almost endless fund of new delights.

Complete tracklist : Johann Strauss II – The Complete Orchestral Edition

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