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
"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
"Name of the orchestra?"
"All right, let that pass".
"OK as long as it’s a short one" (see
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.