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Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Jabuka (The Apple Festival) (1894) [92:19]
Dance Arrangements from Jabuka [46:09]
European Johann Strauss Orchestra/Christian Pollack
rec. Delnicky dum, Pozorice, Czech Republic, 28-30 June 2005 and 9 January 2007
NAXOS 8.660216-17 [74:05 + 64:23]

Our thoughts naturally turn to Johann Strauss II at this time. Thanks to the New Yearís Day concert in Vienna, his waltzes have helped to see in the New Year for generations. This world premiere recording from Naxos gives an airing to an extremely rare Strauss operetta. Itís certainly worth a listen for parts of the disc, though ironically not for the operetta itself.
Jabuka (The Apple Festival) had a rather tortured birth. It is set in a fictional Slavic town, and the very informative booklet notes suggest that Strauss was influenced in this direction by the staging of Smetanaís Bartered Bride in Vienna in 1892. However, the two librettists had different ideas about what form the piece should take: one wanted a classical operetta while the other wanted a more serious operatic setting. As a result the plot is pretty see-through and this probably contributed to its lapse into obscurity after its successful first performance. Itís all about disguise, mistakes and a haughty heroine gaining her comeuppance, but what operetta isnít?
The conductor, Christian Pollack, is a professor at the Vienna Conservatory. He prepared the score and assembled the orchestra, and some of his students sing in the lesser roles. This seems very much a labour of love for him, and this is apparent in his conducting. He has an instinctive feel for the natural swing of Straussís rhythms, and he brings out the colour in the sparkling orchestration beautifully. This is clearly music that he lives and breathes. The European Johann Strauss Orchestra was assembled specially for this recording (most come from the Brno Symphony Orchestra) and they are the best reason for buying this set. They are especially attractive in the Dance Arrangements which Strauss made from the Operetta, included as an appendix on Disc 2. The chorus are composed of university and high school students, and unfortunately it shows. They seem remarkably bound to their seats and their performance never catches fire or taps into the energy of the piece. They are far too serious for this light score, and it is almost as if they were singing in a requiem rather than an operetta.
The solo singing is too variable. Mirko and Vasil, the two brothers who act as heroes (sung by Thomas Tischler and Wolfgang Veith), get into the spirit very well and sing ringingly throughout. Elisabeth Wolfbauer is also attractive as Annita. In some cases, however, the sound made by the singers is just plain unpleasant. Veronika Groiss, who sings the heroine, Jelka, is squally and insecure throughout, and Franz FŲdinger, who sings Joschko, is out of tune almost throughout. He acts in the comic role of the court bailiff, and no doubt Strauss experts would tell me that he is merely using the Sprechstimme style expected in operettas of Straussís time, but Iíd rather have tuneful singing, thank-you very much. While itís normal Naxos practice, it doesnít help that there are no texts or translations, just a cued plot summary.
It says something that the best element of this set is the orchestral dances derived from the operetta. Jabuka is diverting, but it isnít a patch on Straussís more famous operettas. Stick to Die Fledermaus and The Gipsy Baron if you want Strauss on the stage. This recording plugs a gap, however, and we should be grateful to Naxos for continuing to do such excellent work in expanding the repertory. Buy it for the dance arrangements: youíll be whistling them long past New Year.
Simon Thompson


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