> Strauss Gala: Brilliant [CH]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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CD 1
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)

An die schönen blauen Donau, op. 314, Wein, Weib und Gesang, op. 333, Wiener Blut, op. 354, Künstlerleben Walzer, op. 316, Tritsch Tratsch Polka, op. 214, Kaiserwalzer, op. 437, Liebeslieder Walzer, op. 114, Rosen aus dem Süden, op. 388
Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849)

Radetzky Marsch, op. 228
CD 2

G’schichten aus dem Wienerwald, op. 325, Tausend und eine Nacht, Indigo Marsch, op. 349, Morgenblätter Walzer, op. 279, Auf der Jagd, Polka schnell, op. 373, Trau-Schau-Wem!, Waldmeister Ouvertüre, op. 468, Schatzwalzer, op. 418, Wiener Bonbons, op. 307, Unter Donner und Blitz, op. 324, Ägyptischer Marsch, op. 335, Annen Polka, op. 117
CD 3

Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)

Sphärenklänge, op. 235, Moulinet-Polka, op. 57, Aquarellen Walzer, op. 258, Dorfschwalben aus Österreich, op. 164, Mein Lebenslauf ist Lieb und Lust, op. 263, Walzer aus "Die Straussbuben", Lorelei-Rhenklänge, Jockey Polka, op. 278, Bahn frei, Polka schnell, Russischer Marsch, Champagne Polka, Freut euch des Lebens
CD 4

Die Zigeunerbaron: Ouvertüre, Als flotter Geist – Ja, das alles auf Ehr, So täuschte mich die Ahnung nicht, He, Zsupan! – Ja, das Schreiben und das Lesen, Meine Tochter soll kommen, So elend und so treu, Wie wechselvoll beteilt mein Schicksal mich (Finale, Act 1), Mein Aug’bewacht, Ein Gris ist mir im Traum erschienen, Auf, vorbei ist die Nacht, Wer uns getraut, Meine liebe Barinkay, Prost, das ist ausgezeichnet (Finale, Act II), So voll Fröhlichkeit, Von des Tajos Strand, Einzugsmarsch, Reich mir die Hand, vertraue dem Zigeuner (Finale, Act III)
CD 5

Die Fledermaus: Ouverture, Klänge der Heimat, O je, O je wie rührt mich dies, Nur für die Natur, Vergnügungszug, Eljen a Magyar, op. 332, Intermezzo 1001 Nacht, Bei uns zu Haus, op. 361, Leichtes Blut, Eine Nacht in Venedig: Wenn von Lido sacht wieder Kühlung wehr, Ihr Venezianer, hört, Du bist ein Mann, bist sehr gescheit, Frutti di mare, Eviva Caramello, Annina! Caramello!, Der Herzog ist angekommen, Hier ward es still (Finale I)
Unidentified soloists (CDs 4-5), Radio Bratislava Symphony Orchestra/Otto Aebi
Location and recording date not given
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99083 [5 CDs, 61’33", 63’04", 56’12", 71’13", 61’37"]



This set touches an all-time low where documentation is concerned. You can just imagine a cost-cutting team gathering round the boardroom table, axes at the ready.

"Now look, chaps, we’re flogging these things in supermarkets and airports and we’re aiming at people who bung ’em in the basket with the corn flakes and the beefburgers and there’s no use loading ’em up with a load of guff no one’ll ever read. Now what can we do away with? Composers’ names?"

"Steady on, we’ll have to put them in. But don’t let’s get side-tracked by Johann Strauss father and son, plain Johann’ll do." (Just the Radetzky March is by Johann Senior).

"Titles of the pieces?"

"Well, we’ll have to put those in too. But none of those opus number things, you don’t put opus numbers on baked beans so why go putting ’em on Strauss waltzes? And no translating the titles either, they can look in the dictionary if they want to know. And get at least one of ’em wrong" (I’ve filled in as many of the opus numbers as I can. As for the one that’s wrong, I must say that to promote Strauss’s Waldmeister to the role of Weltmeister is a mistake of Nietzschean proportions).

"Notes about the pieces? Plots of the operettas? Something about what’s being sung’"

"Not bloody likely, I’m not paying a man to write a load of bumf when people’ll pay the same price for a blank bit of cardboard".

"Name of the orchestra?"

"All right, let that pass".

"Conductor’s name?"

"OK as long as it’s a short one" (see comments below).

"Singers’ names?"

"Forget ’em. Keep all these snotty prima donnas in their places" (He might have a point there).

"Date and place of recording?"

"Let ’em guess".

"Do we say if the recordings are AAD, ADD or whatever?"

"Look, do you want to sell this stuff or not?"

I should like to point out that, while these are records to be sold in supermarkets and the like, if any supermarket sold a can of baked beans which had such scanty information about its ingredients, the manager would probably end up in prison for failure to comply with a string of dire-sounding European directives.

As you will gather from the comments which follow, I found such differences in the conducting as to suggest at least three hands at work, and the name of Otto Aebi (pronounced AB, get it?) does sound like a throwback to the early days of the bargain LP when you met names like Fred Yoonohoo. However, a spot of browsing through Internet turned up various bits of information. Aebi was born in 1923 (this from a Korean site called The Greatest Conductor’s Dictionary of the World; his whole biography seems to be there if you can read Korean) and from 1966-1976 conducted an ensemble called Harmonie Affoltern am Albis. He was found to be "stern but loveable" and toured several European countries with them. The purely orchestral items would appear to be identical with three LANius LPs dedicated to the Strauss family, of which two were issued (in then-Czechoslovakia) in 1980 and the third in 1989 (and described as AAD). Copyright on certain material from the ex-Iron Curtain area is not always easy to establish (none is acknowledged here).

Regarding the singers, some are very good and I wonder if they are aware that their work is circulating anonymously. I know a Polish soprano living in Milan who took part in a concert performance of a rare Gluck opera, on just one rehearsal with a pick-up orchestra, and by pure chance discovered, while browsing in a record shop, that the performance was out on CD, on a quite reputable Italian label (it’s even been reviewed in Gramophone). And she’d never even been told, much less paid! Still, at least her name is on it.

Turning now to the actual records, there is quite a lot to be said for them. The selection is a reasonable one (famous works that some might miss are the "Pizzicato Polka", "Perpetuum Mobile" and "Voices of Spring") and the decision to give Josef Strauss a disc to himself is to be welcomed. Performance standards are variable, but Aebi has some important qualities as a Straussian, as well as a few more debatable ones. The Bratislava orchestra proves an able body; the odd imprecision is of little account.

CD 1

For years I used to think how much better the "Blue Danube" would sound if conductors, instead of treating the famous theme which starts the waltz proper as an exercise in rhythmic distortion ("just listen to how I can maul it around!") picked up their waltz tempo straight away, just presenting the music simply and directly. But no, it was a pipe-dream. Until I heard it played like that by a conductor who might just possibly have some authority: Johann Strauss IV (his 78s get occasional transfers). But, heedless of the family warning, we’ve witnessed over the years the dismal spectacle of a catwalk of unsuitable conductors (I’m not talking about Carlos Kleiber) in Vienna every New Year’s Day making the Danube sound ever more brown, muddy and sluggish. So three cheers for Aebi. After an introduction in a remarkably steady tempo and the ritual rallentando for the first four notes, off we go, straight into the waltz-tempo without any further ado. Aebi thus establishes immediately his manner, which is somewhat similar to that of Robert Stolz. Waltz accompaniments are slightly chunky but alive, and basically this keeps going steadily through all the piece. Often I was quite lost in admiration at the way in which a new melody would arrive to change totally the whole mood, without any interruption of the dance itself.

However, in the context of this first-principle Strauss conducting, Aebi sometimes decides to insert a few bars in a totally different tempi (usually much slower) and with such disconcertingly disruptive effect that I can only quote Jerome K. Jerome’s description of a memorable ride down a Black Forest mountain road: "The hill rose at an angle of seventy-five on the off-side, and fell away at an angle of seventy-five on the near-side. We were proceeding very comfortably, the driver, we were happy to notice, with his eyes shut, when suddenly something, a bad dream or indigestion, awoke him. He seized the reins, and, by an adroit movement, pulled the near-side horse over the edge, where it clung, half-supported by the traces". It seems that sometimes, when everything is proceeding smoothly, Aebi panics and thinks "My God! If I don’t do something with the music they’ll think I’m not really conducting at all". Both the "Blue Danube" and the "Kaiserwalzer" contain notable examples of these odd pranks, yet "Künstlerleben" and "Liebeslieder Walzer" sound all the better for being danced straight through and make it regrettable that such a generally enjoyable record should be spoilt be these occasional quirks.

Of the non-Waltzes, the "Radetzky March" is pretty brisk but, strutting up and down the room to it, I had to admit that it is still a march, and the "Tritsch Tratsch Polka" is very spirited.

CD 2

I enjoyed this so much less that it provoked my initial suspicion that more than one pseudonymous conductor might be at work. The "Thousand and One Nights" coalesces into a single piece all the eccentricities of which Aebi is capable. A ghastly performance. In the "Indigo Marsch" his insistence on percussion make the orchestration seem crude and even when he plays "Morgernblätter" straight he seems out of sorts – it’s heavy-fisted and again makes the orchestration sound cruder than it needs to. This is more bandstand Strauss than concert-hall Strauss. The catalogue of moans and groans continues with an "Auf der Jagd" which is just too slow and joyless for a "Polka schnell", "Thunder and Lightning" is also rather heavy and rigid and the "Annen Polka" graceless. But the "Egyptian March", with its surprise entry of the chorus, is impressive and the "Schatzwalzer" and especially "Vienna Bonbons" are spirited and uneccentric reminders of Aebi’s Strauss at its best.

CD 3

If Johann Strauss Junior has a verve and brio which have always captured the public, Josef’s more gentle, poetic, almost melancholy qualities are sometimes preferred by musicians. Aebi is completely uneccentric throughout this disc. However, his slightly upfront, chirpy way does seem better suited to brother Johann than to Josef. His cheerful literalness underplays the composer’s more poetic side and I most enjoyed those pieces, such as "Bahn frei" and the "Champagne Polka", in which Josef sets aside his more poetic nature and goes all out for fun. I must say, though, that the lengthy "Freu euch des Lebens" Waltz which concludes the disc finds Aebi more appreciative of the composer’s poetry. This is a very good performance indeed, concluding a disc which is a fair representation of Josef Strauss, sometimes more than that.

CD 4

The recordings on CDs 1-3 were brilliant, clear if a bit shallow. The Gypsy Baron overture immediately announces a recording with more spread and depth, less close up with the result that there is more warmth but with more of the hall’s longish reverberation present (I am supposing the orchestra played in the same hall all the time). When the voices enter they are very close, clear and firm, and I had to lower the volume level, with the result that the orchestra seemed to be playing at the far end of a cathedral. I got used to it up to a point but it is far from ideal.

Aebi shows in these operetta discs a flair and a poetry that even the best of the other performances never quite touched. This is pretty well ideal operetta conducting.

The voices are what you might call typical operetta voices, always serviceable and musical, with the odd strained note to suggest they are not quite material for the full-scale opera house, but well in their parts and stylistically beyond reproach. The Saffi is particularly fine and I would dearly like to know who she is.

The extracts from each act are designed to run continuously. In spite of the lacklustre orchestral recording and the lack of any text or synopsis there is much enjoyment to be had from this.

CD 5

What an odd selection from Fledermaus. After the Overture and three vocal items we get a string of dances which have nothing to do with the operetta! Readers may know, but those powers that be at Brilliant evidently don’t ("Look, chaps, we’re flogging tunes to go with the beefburgers, not a bleeding musicological exercise"), that the Ball Scene contains space for additions more or less ad libitum. If you’ve got big stars in your cast, you get them to do their party pieces (not necessarily by Strauss at all). Otherwise you choose (as Aebi has) a selection of Strauss dances. I can only suppose that, faced with the need to flesh out an LP-length selection of A Night in Vienna, somebody in Brilliant made this rather unintelligent selection from a complete Fledermaus.

The recording on this CD is much the same as that of the Gypsy Baron and Aebi once again leads ideal interpretations – there is a world of difference between the dances in Fledermaus and even the best of those on the first three CDs. The soprano would appear to be common to all three performances. She has an interesting voice, with a mezzo-like richness in her lower register yet able to soar easily to a high C (I’m not sure the high D was such a good idea). The tenor was not the strongest point in the Gypsy Baron, but the artist here gives a very fine account of Nur für die Natur and indeed, the Night in Vienna extracts contain so much fine work that it is all the more frustrating not to be told who is responsible for it.

Nothing would have been lost by declaring the date and location of the recordings, and above all the names of the singers, many of whom deserve to be known far beyond the confines of Bratislava, and indeed may well be so. The gentleman whose gloriously rich tones are to be heard in the finale of A Night in Vienna is no mere provincial tenor and again, it is heartening that a relatively modest outfit like this could afford his fee.

An overall recommendation is difficult. If you pick this up casually with your beefburgers, there could be worse ways of getting to know Strauss, even though I would not recommend CD 2 on its own. But there are many better. In the very days in which I was listening to the set, a review appeared by Terry Barfoot of a 5-CD set of Boskovsky’s Strauss recordings for EMI (EMI FRANCE 5 74528 2). This would surely be worth the extra money.

Christopher Howell

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