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Johann Strauss Gala
Andrea Rost (soprano)
José Carreras (tenor)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Heldenplatz, Vienna, 29 May 1999
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Picture format: 16:9
Resolution: 1080i High Definition (upscale)
Blu-ray Disc 25 GB (single layer)
Region: worldwide
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray Disc 108174 [114:00]

Johann Strauss II died in Vienna on 3 June 1899. On the Saturday evening preceding the 100th anniversary of that date, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave an open air concert of his music - along with some by his father - in front of almost 8,000 spectators in the city's imposing Heldenplatz. This disc records that occasion.

What is immediately obvious is that Vienna takes a formal approach to such events. Whereas a London open-air audience might well have come in jeans and sweatshirts and brought picnic hampers, the Viennese sport their smartest outfits - virtually all the men wear suits and ties - and sit in neatly regimented rows with not a single egg and cress sandwich in sight. Even their rhythmic clapping during the final Radetzky march is strictly drilled by Maestro Mehta who, with the air of a heroic general commanding his troops, turns to lead them from his rostrum.

In contrast to the somewhat serious audience, the orchestra appears pretty relaxed and, indeed, at times to be having a great deal of fun. So too does their conductor, as we can see not only from the recording's very many close-up shots but also on a pair of giant TV screens positioned to each side of the stage. Mehta would feel quite at home in the Austrian capital. After making his conducting debut there almost 60 years ago, he has developed a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic, receiving its Nikisch Ring award as well as being made its Honorary Conductor in 2001. Of the two well-matched vocal soloists, the charismatic and beautifully-outfitted Hungarian soprano Andrea Rost also smiles a great deal, though for some reason Jose Carreras tends to adopt a rather more serious demeanour.

In spite of Mr Carreras’s apparent reluctance to smile, this was clearly an evening of simple and unapologetic fun and good humour. As such, while the Vienna Philharmonic conveys an air of Gemütlichkeit and plays with the greatest assurance and appreciation of the Strauss family's characteristic idiom, it would be pointless to offer any criticism based on strictly musical grounds. In fact, the most musically enlightening moment, at least for me, occurred in the polka inspired by the Krapfenwaldl, a wooded district of Vienna, where we get to see close-ups of the devices - can they be called "instruments"? - used to make cuckoo calls and generalised bird twittering sounds.

I wonder whether video director Bob Coles was somewhat constrained in his choice of shots. One particular view of the audience, featuring a woman in a light blue silk gown, is used repeatedly, while a relatively small number of the orchestral players are shown so regularly that by the end of the evening I felt that the piccolo player and the horn player with spiky hair were old friends. In what I take to be an attempt to introduce a little more visual variety, we get to see plenty of views over the trees on the edge of the Heldenplatz, as well as the square's architectural details and its statuary, including not one but two quite prolonged shots of a guano-encrusted statue of a general on horseback.

This disc is ostensibly, then, a perfectly acceptable, if by no means remarkable, record of that evening's commemorative concert. As prospective purchasers study the promotional blurb on the back cover, however, they may well start to become a little perplexed.

"Inspired by the enthusiasm of the crowd", they will read, "Mehta was moved to play the Radetzky March as an encore - the traditional closing piece at every Strauss concert." Well, forgive me for nit-picking, but either the march was played automatically because it's the finale to "every" such occasion or else the conductor chose to play it because he was inspired to do so by the audience. Did no-one on Arthaus Musik's marketing team proof-read the text and think through the meaning of the words? I'm forced to conclude that they didn't, for there's also some downright factual inaccuracy on the packaging - where the disc's running time is said to be 90 minutes when, at 114, it's actually considerably longer than that.

Inside the booklet, things sometimes aren't much better. A paragraph that can't decide whether "Carnival" or "Carneval" is the correct spelling also fails to master the subtleties of the English apostrophe, as it informs us that "Johann Strauss son also tirelessly invented new dance tunes for the time of fools". The time of fools??? Here I can only surmise that someone with no appreciation of everyday English has come up with a sadly literal and quite meaningless translation of the words "die närrische Zeit" that occur in the booklet's parallel German text. Wouldn't something like "Vienna's annual Carnival season" have made more sense to non-German speakers? Similarly, when the German booklet text makes passing reference to "die Doppelmonarchie" of Austria-Hungary, it is accorded a literal translation as "the double monarchy" whereas English-speakers customarily refer to the Habsburg regime as "the Dual Monarchy". Was there really no-one with a more idiomatic command of English available in the office that day?

Arthaus-Musik GmbH is a German company with its headquarters near Leipzig. Were it marketing its product primarily in German-speaking countries and just exporting the odd disc or two abroad, this really wouldn't be too big an issue. Perhaps, in itself, it actually isn't. But if you position yourself as a high-profile international player - which the enterprising and highly successful Arthaus-Musik, with an impressive catalogue to its name, certainly is - then I do think that you need to pay your various worldwide target audiences rather greater respect than this.

Thankfully, though, the contents of the disc itself are of a markedly higher standard than their irritatingly slipshod presentation suggests, even though I finished watching with the distinctly reinforced opinion that this is music for dancing rather than for listening to at length in a single uninterrupted sitting.

Rob Maynard

Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Einzugsmarsch from Der Zigeunerbaron (1885) [3:28]
Im Sturmschritt op.348, polka (?) [2:54]
Wiener Blut op.354, waltz (1873) [9:04]
Stadt und Land op.322, polka mazurka (?) [4:55]
Nur fort! op.383, polka (?) [3:21]
Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka op.214 (1858) [3:30]
Overture from Die Fledermaus (1874) [8:58]
Czardas from Die Fledermaus  (1874) [5:57]
Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849)
Loreley-Rhein-Klänge op.154, waltz (1843) [7:53]
Beliebte Annen-Polka op.137 (1852) [2:21]
Sperl-Galopp op.42 (?) [2:39]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Im Krapfenwaldl op.336, polka française (1869) [4:44]
Wiener Bonbons op.307, waltz (1866) [9:19]
Wer uns getraut from Der Zigeunerbaron   (1885) [5:18]
Unter Donner und Blitz op.324, polka (1868) [4:06]
Gondellied from Eine Nacht in Venedig  (1883) [4:54]
Duet from Wiener Blut   (1899) [3:59]
An der schönen blauen Donau op.314, waltz (1867) [9:52]
Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849)
Radetzky-Marsch op.228 (1848) [5:57]



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