Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)
Josef Strauss Edition, Volume 20
Liechtenstein Marsch, Opus 36
Delirien Waltz, Opus 212
Pêle-mêle Polka, Opus 161
Pariser Quadrille, Opus 209
Flattergeister Waltz, Opus 62
Künstler-Caprice Polka, Opus 135
Dithyrambe Polka, Opus 236
Vélocipède Polka, Opus 259
Actionen Waltz, Opus 174
Cupido Polka, Opus 81
Frauenherz Polka-Mazur, Opus 166
Wiener Bonmots Waltz, Opus 108

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Kosice/Christian Pollack
Rec 3-7 March 2000, House of Arts, Kosice, Slovakia
MARCO POLO 8.223622 [65.59]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS  Amazon recommendations

Marco Polo's mammoth project to record all the music of the Strauss family takes another step forward with this issue of Volume 20 of the works of Josef Strauss.

Josef initially trained to be an engineer, and spent some time working with spinning machines, water mains and buildings construction. He even invented a cleaning machine for the streets of Vienna. It took some years for the family to persuade him to take over the direction of their orchestra, after his elder brother, Johann, had collapsed from exhaustion.

Josef's reluctance to commit himself to music stemmed from his lack of expertise on the violin. When he was finally cajoled into taking the platform he conducted with a baton instead of in the traditional Viennese fashion, as perpetuated by Willi Boskovsky, Lorin Maazel and others, of directing with the bow of the violin and joining in the playing whenever appropriate. Josef's latent inability was hidden from all by an iron self-discipline, and his music shows no sign of his deep depressions. His waltzes are full of romantic tenderness and his polkas have a brilliant rhythmic flair.

These strengths are certainly in evidence in this attractive programme which features some well known items alongside many others which are less famous. But all, particularly the lively polkas, are well worth hearing. The selection opens attractively with the direct appeal of the Liechtenstein March, whose rhythmic contour is pointed by the percussion, and Christian Pollack's choice of tempo is just right for emphasising this. Perhaps the best known of these pieces is the Delirien Waltz, whose main theme is one of the best tunes conceived by any member of the Strauss family. Pollack shapes it tastefully, but the performance as a whole doesn't achieve the tonal lustre of a great orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Slovak Philharmonic play well enough, however, and the Marco Polo recording is atmospheric, if somewhat wanting in richness and impact at climaxes. It is always possible to hear details within the texture - an important consideration in this sophisticated music - but the sonorous potential of the scoring is not realised to the highest standard.

On the whole it is the fast polkas which fare best, and some of them are terrific, revealing the composer's lively wit: the delightfully named Vélocipède and the exciting Pêle-mêle are particularly good examples of Josef's art. Inevitably any composer who writes literally hundreds of pieces within a relatively restricted idiom will achieve highs and lows of invention, but Josef Strauss's technique is top-drawer, while his invention offers many delights. As an example of what can be found by exploring this repertoire, try the little-known Flattergeister Waltz, which contains a couple of really wonderful tunes.

Terry Barfoot

John France has also listened to this disc

As much for my own benefit as for anyone reading this review, let me begin by sorting out the Strauss family. Unlike one of my colleagues, we can ignore Richard; he was slightly later, and, although he wrote Der Rosenkavalier, he was not one of the 'Waltz Kings' of Vienna! Also we can put to one side Christoph Strauss- he was an organist and Kapellmeister of St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. It is doubtful that he played Champagne Galops there. So that leaves us with Johann I, Johann II, Eduard and our man, Josef. Basically Johann I was the father- the rest were sons and therefore brothers.

Much as I enjoy the music of this talented family, I have never really taken the trouble to sort out 'who wrote what'. For example, father's best-known work is the Radetsky March. His catalogue extends to over 250 separate works. It is the eldest son, Johann II who was the most brilliant of the family. It was he who wrote most of what is regarded as the best of Viennese 'dance' music. To his credit are such gems as the Blue Danube Waltz, The Rustle of Spring, Wine, Women & Song and, of course, Roses from the South. It was this Strauss who gave us the incomparable Die Fledermaus. Eduard Strauss wrote comparatively little. Yet in many ways the few waltzes of this the youngest brother are truly miniature masterpieces.

Josef Strauss has a massive catalogue, numbering over 280 works. He was born in August 1822 in Vienna. Josef was not originally intended to become a composer. In fact, he studied architecture and furthered this career. However, he conned music secretly and helped out his brother Johann II in conducting the band. He is best remembered for works such as Village Swallows from Austria (1864), The Mysterious Powers of Magnetism (1865) and the Music of the Spheres (1868). He co-wrote the famous Pizzicato Polka with Johann II. He died on 22nd July 1870 after sustaining a fall from the conductor's rostrum.

From the above résumé it is clear that however good and competent the music of Josef is, nothing that he wrote has really become part of the recognised Viennese Dance heritage. So what is Marco Polo doing providing Volume 20 of this relatively unknown composer? I think it must be to do with the fact that sometimes we all have a desire to own the complete works of an author or a composer. I have definitely fallen prey to this disease a number of times in my life (Walton on Chandos for example). Trouble is that one gets 'good, bad and indifferent' in a 'complete' cycle. Even Ludwig and Amadeus wrote seriously below average works.

A quick scan at the sleeve of my Marco Polo CD shocks me to the fact that I do not actually know any of the marches, polkas or quadrilles presented. A brief maths exercise reveals to me that if JS wrote 283 works and we have twelve on this CD then there must be another four CDs to be issued in this series. It is a massive cycle. One can only admire the courage of Marco Polo in embarking on such an enterprise.

My only major criticism is that there is no 'biography' of the composer in these notes. Each work has its own paragraph and obviously there is biographical material in these comments. But what is lacking is an overview. Perhaps it was given in Volume 1?

On a positive note the cover picture is truly evocative- all the romance of an old-time promenade along the Prater. Well chosen!

The orchestra under their conductor Christian Pollack take this music very seriously. There is no sense of parody here. But that is hardly surprising as Pollack is a musicologist as well as a conductor. He specialises in the field of Viennese Dance music and in particular the Strauss family. So what we are getting is the best possible performance of these long forgotten works.

How can I sum up this music? Some of it is very attractive; some of it seems to be very much written to a 'successful' formula. I must confess that it does not seem to have the immediate appeal of Johann II, but that is probably just the fact that I have been brought up knowing the 'famous' pieces. Something like the 'Legal Action' Waltz or the Velocipede Polka would be extremely popular if it was well known. There is a slightly melancholic feel to some of Josef's music. I feel about this as I do about some of Eric Coates' music.

I am never one to run down this kind of music. I always try to compare 'like with like,' not confusing genre. It is not fair to evaluate these dances with the music of say, a Ravel or a Monteverdi. The criterion is quite simply - is it a good example of its genre? Is it well written? Is it a good waltz, polka or quadrille? If the answer is 'yes' then it passes my test. It is unfair, yet a very common mistake to say that, for example, Josef Strauss is not as good as Berlioz. Both men were craftsmen in their own fields. Both had totally different agendas.

This is a lovely CD. Whether I would want to listen to the other nineteen is open to conjecture. Yet just as I long for a complete CD cycle of works by York Bowen or Lennox Berkeley, there must be many fans of Viennese music that are delighted with this massive recording project.

What I think Marco Polo needs to do is hit the popular market with a 'dumbed down' Josef Strauss's 'Greatest Hits.' Then perhaps it would be more liable to 'on-spec' purchase by the 'punter' as opposed to the cognoscenti.

John France

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: