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Carl Michael ZIEHRER (1843 - 1922)
Selected Dances and Marches, Vol.4
Weaner Mad'ln, Walzer, Op. 388
Augensprach, Polka Mazur, Op. 120
Duck' dich, Manderl!, Marsch, Op. 548
Liebesgeheimnis, Polka, Op. 538 (orch. C. Pollack)
Liebeswalzer, Op. 537.
Frauenlogik, Polka Mazur, Op. 445 (ed. D. Heyes)
Ohne Sorgen, Polka schnell, Op. 104
Natursänger, Walzer, Op. 415
Ein Blümchen im Verborgenen, Polka Mazur, Op. 202
Buberl, komm'! Walzer, Op. 505
König von Sachsen, Marsch, Op. 64
In Reih' und Glied, Polka française, Op.159
Seculo nuovo, vita nuova, Walzer, Op. 498
Razumovsky Sinfonia/Christian Pollack
rec. Concert Hall of Slovak Radio (Bratislava), 26-30/11/2001
MARCO POLO 8.223817 [77'14]

According to the blurb in the panel on the back of the case, "Ziehrer's achievements have been overshadowed by the renown of his great rivals, the Strauss brothers". They can say that again: in my case it's not so much "overshadowed" as "totally blacked out"! This, I must say, seems to be one of mankind's characteristics: we go through life unshakeably confident that we know it all, in spite of rediscovering the true depths of our ignorance about twice a fortnight. Time, methinks, for my twice-fortnightly dose of anti-ignorance ear-drops.

I'll have to apologise to any of you for whom the name "Ziehrer" is closely associated with "household", because the rest of us will need a wee bit of context-setting. Now, have you spotted that this is Volume Four of a series? If so, you might possibly cock an eyebrow to learn that John Diamond's booklet note, in nearly two pages of commendably compact small print, provides what I might fairly describe as a general biographical background. This is sufficiently comprehensive for me to wonder if it appears verbatim in every volume - and if so, it will be a triumph of convenience. You also get over two pages of notes on the music, one for each and every one of the thirteen items, and with English translations of the original German titles!

Ziehrer was certainly adept at adapting. "Overshadowed" in town by the Strausses, he took himself off to the suburbs, worked hard, and got himself noticed. To keep himself on an even keel, he ducked and dived, juggling publishers and bands, and seemed to regard military service as a useful backstop when the readies were running low. Oddly but happily it was this bandmaster talent that found him his niche, a neat little logical chain that saw him become an absolute "must have" at all sorts of balls and other social functions.

I found it tiring just reading about his phenomenal work rate, so it was no surprise to discover that eventually he fell victim to overwork. Some "victim"! - even his enforced "retirement" was turned to advantage. Apparently not over-proud of his earlier somewhat limp attempts at the genre, he emerged from his convalescent retreat with a determination to get into operetta. As both Johann Strauss and Carl Millöcker had shucked off their mortal coil around then, even the timing was fortuitous - for Ziehrer, at any rate. What's more, he made a great success of it: his first effort ran for over 1500 performances. Ziehrer's operettas not only spread right across Europe but also jumped the Big Pond, landing on Broadway.

He certainly got around. In Europe, just before the Great War, he nurtured a new band that would eventually blossom into the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. In the USA, he rubbed shoulders with John Philip Sousa - and, as himself an experienced military bandmaster, on fully equal terms. Most significantly, his early exposure to both suburban folk and military band music was largely responsible for his style. This marries the poise and grace of a Strauss with rude, rural robustness. If this combination of influences seems a bit unlikely, let's not forget that Mahler was weaned on a similar blend of influences, albeit with a rather different outcome.

The composer's characteristic style dictates, or should dictate, the approach of the performers, shouldn't it? If Ziehrer has metaphorical mud on his boots, symbolic straw in his hair, and is blowing on a brigade bugle, we wouldn't expect him to sound like second-hand Strauss, would we? At the other extreme, if he's written music for "balls and other functions", the mud and straw must remain strictly metaphorical and symbolic, mustn't they? Otherwise, the odour might offend the delicate sensibilities of the ladies. What we're looking for, I suspect, bears a similar relation to the bucolic barn and the military parade ground as does the "gypsy music" dished up in the coffee-houses bore to real gypsy music. You can sense its origins, but it's been given a good bath and had its hair nicely brushed to make it presentable in polite society.

So, who's playing it? The Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra. And what is that? The booklet tells us it comprises "the best players" of the Slovak orchestras - the Philharmonic, the RSO, the Chamber Orchestra, and the Opera Theatre - and that it was formed for the express purpose of recording for Naxos and Marco Polo. Right then, on the one hand it's a scratch band drawn from various orchestras, and on the other it has cherry-picked the best players. That sounds like just about the right recipe. The conductor, Christian Pollack, also has promising credentials - a native of Vienna, and a researcher noted for his work on Viennese dance music.

Appetite whetted? "Not half", as they say in my neck of the woods! Listening, at first I thought the music wasn't as memorably melodious as Johann Strauss. Yet, as it went on, I turned to thinking, "Well, maybe not when compared to the very best of Johann Strauss, anyway". Fine, you can't avoid comparing it to Strauss, if for no better reason than the music is from the same stable. Nevertheless, as they say, it's well-crafted, tuneful music. Ziehrer has a fine talent for colour, and the imagination for some ear-catching touches. Best of all is that ruddy-cheeked robustness that seems always to be there, either right up front or - even in his most gracious passages - lurking in the background. Make no mistake, this is not just enjoyable music, it's a lot of sheer fun!

The opening Weaner Mad'ln waltz comes as something of a declaration of intent. The bucolic ländler style of the introduction may at first sound redolent of you-know-who's Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald, but not for long. It soon finds a character all of its own: not for Ziehrer the zither - he gets half the orchestra busy whistling! Moreover, as soon as the decibels are cranked up, you can hear the pitch-black "boom" of a modestly enthusiastic bass-drum, punctuating the on-beats and bringing just a hint of Bavarian beer festival to the proceedings. Along with plenty of "welly" at the bottom of the recording spectrum this underlines Ziehrer's military influence. You are thus immediately aware of the quality of the recording which, although it doesn't aspire to the "hi-fi demonstration" class, has warmth as well as detail and an ambience sufficient to give the sound a very satisfactory body and bloom.

Once the main waltz gets going, it is soon obvious that the military flavouring is not going to dominate the proceedings: Pollack makes sure that the music's vigorous rhythmic pulse is inflected with lots of lively rubato and dynamical stresses. In fact, throughout the entire programme he consistently respects the particular characters or the various forms. The waltzes are vaulting and prehensile, whilst marches are quite properly governed by a sergeant-major's relatively unyielding baton. Pollack's appreciation of idiom is most delightfully apparent in the polkas, of which there are no fewer than four varieties - mazur, schnell, française, and just plain ordinary - each of which is gratifyingly distinct in style. True, it will be entirely possible to whip up a lot more excitement than does Pollack, but excitement isn't the be all and end all. I'd sooner have this degree of empathy with the music than any amount of podium-inspired "flash-bang-wallop".

Having said that, I hardly need to add that the players seem to be with him all the way. After all, it is only through the sounds that the players make that we can have any idea of the conductor's conceptions. Nevertheless, they ooze charm. The appropriately slender-sounding body of strings captivate in the ease of their frequent switching between fulsome flow and pin-pricked staccato. As so often in this sort of music, the woodwind seem to spend most of their time doubling the strings. This may be something of a "duty", but it is a duty that they take very seriously, filling in the colouring-book with many delightful shades! On the occasions where they do grab the limelight, they are as chirpy as birds in a garden full of breadcrumbs.

Where Ziehrer departs most radically from Johann Strauss is in the brass department. That military influence surfaces most obviously in his generally bolder and more involved use of the yellow metal - and not just in the marches which, I should add, rise well above mundane "ooming" and "pah-ing". I was particularly taken by the frequent blending of brass and woodwind, trumpets especially adopting the manners of cornets - sometimes I got to wondering if there were actual cornets in and amongst! The brass are richly sonorous when required although, tempting as it might have been under the circumstances, at no time do they become overbearingly rowdy. Considering some of the brass we hear these days, that must have demanded a fair amount of self-discipline!

In and amongst, the harp and percussion make countless contributions. The former, like the woodwind, spends most of its time "merely" colouring in, yet how often I found myself thinking how much magic that modest harp brought to this passage or that. The latter, as again befits that military influence, frequently add colourful ballast to the mix. It is a credit to all concerned that they do so with palpable weight, but moderated by a modicum of tact.

I don't propose to plod through, detailing the delights of all thirteen tracks on this disc, but there are some highlights I must mention on top of the first item. For instance, there's Augensprach (track 2), whose opening is weighed down by sadness and longing, but blossoms wonderfully with some deliciously perky playing. Or what about the rumbustious bustle and jollity of the march Duck' dich, Manderl! (track 3)? Or the wide-eyed and sprightly Liebesgeheimnis (track 4) with its cheeky bits of tootling trumpet? Then there are the variegated sparkling colours and liquid melody of Liebeswalzer (track 5). Or the enigmatic charms of the polka-mazurka Frauenlogik (track 6) - "enigmatic" because I haven't the faintest idea what the title "women's logic" has to do with the music. No matter, it's a gorgeous little piece ...

Hold on! So far I've mentioned every track! I'm sorry, it can't be helped, because they've all got something to commend them. Honestly, I for one would be more than happy to give the Strauss Family a well-earned rest, and fill the next New Year's Day Concert to the gunwhales with this music of Carl Michael Ziehrer. It may lack the sheer stature of Johann Junior at his very best, but it more than holds its own in terms of sheer charm and entertainment value. Alright, maybe you would find this CD a bit much all in one lump, but doesn't J.S. himself provoke a similar reaction. The solution is simple: programme it in 15 minute chunks, one per night Monday to Friday, settle back in a big comfy chair with a glass of good, red wine, and listen - surely the perfect palliative for each day's hard grind, especially when it's played with such relaxed good humour, wit and (I'll say it again!) charm.

Paul Serotsky

See also review by Ian Lace

8.223814 ZIEHRER: Carl Michael Ziehrer Vol. 1
8.223815 ZIEHRER: Carl Michael Ziehrer Vol. 2
8.225172 ZIEHRER: Carl Michael Ziehrer Vol. 3
8.223817 ZIEHRER: Selected Dances and Marches

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