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 RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849)
Strauss Edition, Vol. 7: Mittel gegen den Schlaf, Walzer op.65 (1833) [06:52]
Jugendfeuer-Galopp (1836) [02:31]
Emlék Pestre (Erinnerung an Pesth)
Walzer op.66 (1834) [07:26]
Cachucha-Galopp op.97 (1837) [02:07]
Gabrielen-Walzer op.68 (1834) [07:36] Boulogner-Galopp, op.104 (1839) [01:58] Pfennig-Walzer op.70 (1834) [06:52]
Der Carneval in Paris, Galopp op.100 (1838) [02:39]
Iris-Walzer op.75 (1834) [06:25]
Original-Parade-Marsch op.73 (1832) [01:56]
Erinnerungen an Berlin, Walzer op.78 (1834) [07:59]
Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina/Ernst Märzendorfer
rec. 1-6 May 2004, Fatra Concert Hall, Žilina, Slovakia
MARCO POLO 8.225283 [54:22]

 

Unlike the Marco Polo editions of Johann Strauss II and his brother Josef, which were farmed out to a range of conductors, good, bad and indifferent, the Johann I edition – the previous volumes of which have all been reviewed by me for the site – continues to be shared between just two. They are Christian Pollack (vols. 1, 2, 5, 6), who is perhaps not a very great conductor but who loves the music and knows how it has to go, and the veteran Ernst Märzendorfer (vols. 3, 4), the first conductor to put all the Haydn symphonies on record and a well-respected figure in Vienna. As well as having the style at his fingertips, he brought about a minor revolution in the standards of orchestral tuning and ensemble; only vol. 1, recorded several years before the others, used a different orchestra. Comparing the admittedly spirited efforts under Pollack in vol. 2 with Märzendorfer’s performances in vols. 3 and 4 was rather like seeing a painting before and after restoration. However, the improvements obtained under Märzendorfer were fairly well maintained when Pollack took over again for vols. 5 and 6 and, combined the conductor’s evident enjoyment of the music. I wondered if these performances did not get the best of both worlds.

Well, here is Märzendorfer back for vol. 7, and immediately orchestral discipline is tightened a stage further. Clearly a great deal of care has been taken over articulation, phrasing and balance, as well as on the shaping of the dance rhythms themselves. Yet if this sounds as though the music has been confined within an iron-clad, Szell-like grip, the wonder of it is that the sheer enjoyment exuded by the Pollack performances has not been lost, with the result that the series reaches a new level of excellence.

Strauss’s own growing maturity makes the task easier, of course. When reviewing the first volume in the series I rather upset one reader with my suggestion that, when vol. 2 came along it wouldn’t make very much difference if one bought it or simply listened to vol. 1 again, since this was consumer-music. I still think that was true of the early pieces, but it becomes less and less true as the series proceeds. Perhaps Johann the father never came up with anything as unforgettable as the top twenty or so of his most famous son’s successes, or even a few of Josef’s; the enduring and universal popularity of these pieces is no accident. Let us allow that Johann II achieved an almost symphonic breadth beside which his father can seem a little short-winded; let us allow that Josef has a gentle touch of melancholy which musicians find very appealing. But Johann I has his own qualities, which we might identify in sheer friendliness, in a bright and perky bonhomie allied to great inventiveness in instrumental colour in relation to the small band available. The failure of successive Vienna New Year’s Day concerts to recognize him as more than the composer of the “Radetzky March” becomes more and more puzzling as this series proceeds. Everything here is wholly enjoyable; I would single out the chirpy “Pfennig-Walzer” and the infectious “Erinnerung an Berlin” as particularly worth the attention of conductors looking for something by Johann I to include in a Viennese evening.

Märzendorfer conducts all this not only with wonderful verve and spirit, but his manner is ideal for a library edition in the sense that he is wholly non-interventionist. Unlike some great names who show their affection for this music by smothering it in rubato, he simply sees that the dance rhythms are alive and that the music keeps dancing right through. Since I am sure this is the authentic way of playing Strauss, I must say it would be interesting to hear how Märzendorfer approaches some of the famous – and much-mauled – pieces from this repertoire. And come to think of it might not Naxos, who have come to the rescue of other under-recorded conductors in the final stages of their careers - notably Tintner - let us hear Märzendorfer in something else?

I don’t know how many more volumes will be required to complete this edition, but the latest piece here is from 1839, which means that Strauss’s career still had ten years to go, so I presume we still have a great deal to look forward to. Highly recommended, and not only to those collecting the series.

Christopher Howell

 

 

 

 



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