Joseph LANNER (1801-1843) Tarantel-Galopp (Tarantula galop) (1838) [2:02] Hexentanz Waltz (Witches' dance waltz) (1843) [11:33] Elisens und Katinkens Vereinigung (The Union of Elizabeth and Catherine) (1831) [3:41] Hofball-Tänze (Court ball dances) (1840) [11:30] Huldigungsmarsch (Homage march) (1836) [4:12] Neujahrs-Galopp (New year's galop) (1833) [3:50] Mitternachts Waltz (Midnight waltz) (1826) [6:30] Hans-Jörgel-Polka (Hans Jörgel's polka) (1842) [3:23] Steyrische Tänze (Styrian dances) (1841) [6:52] Die Schönbrunner (The Schönbrunn waltz) (1842) [14:57]
Orchestre de Cannes/Wolfgang Dörner
rec. Théâtre Croisette de l'hôtel JW Marriott, Cannes, 24-26 June 2015 NAXOS 8.573552 [68:29]
The Viennese waltz remains most closely associated with the name of Johann Strauss II. Even when casual listeners can't actually put a name to them, they immediately recognise the familiar melodies of The blue Danube op.314, Tales from the Vienna woods op.325 and The emperor waltz op.437 and, if pressed, can probably even whistle a passable version too.
As their high opus numbers suggest, those three - dating, respectively, from 1866, 1868 and 1888 - and several others just as famous come from the period of Strauss's artistic maturity. But their very popularity makes it easy to overlook the first phase of the jobbing composer's career when, from 1844 until the early 1860s, he churned out a very large number of pretty unremarkable and, quite frankly, formulaic pieces. Who now whistles - let alone takes to the dance floor for - Dances of the harem op.5, Echoes from Walachia op.50 or that cheery little number Cries of Mephistopheles from hell op.101? And let's not forget Legal amendments op.146, the very title of which is enough to suggest that, unless the composer enjoyed an unusually convivial relationship with his lawyer, it's an altogether rather dry affair.
During those two rather fallow decades, Strauss's reputation as a composer of music for the ballroom remained eclipsed by that of Joseph Lanner. Generally regarded nowadays as the inventor of the Viennese waltz, Lanner had died prematurely in 1843 while at the height of his powers. Only a year before his death, enthusiastic audiences are said to have demanded no less than 21 encores of his most accomplished and enduringly popular composition, The Schönbrunn waltz.
I suspect that anyone listening to Schönbrunn blind and for the first time might guess that it's something by Strauss - but somewhat lighter in texture. It’s also done at greater length. On this new release it comes in at 14:57, whereas the last performance of a Strauss waltz that I reviewed on this website, Artist's life, was done and dusted in just 9:46 even when played in full with its elaborate introduction and all specified repeats (review).
One might therefore suspect that Schönbrunn is going to be a somewhat overblown concoction, but it turns out to be no such thing. It's actually very attractive and well put together, as is Lanner's almost equally substantial (11:33) Witches' dance waltz of 1843. Listen to those two tracks just a few times and you will quickly begin to appreciate their composer's artistry and technical skills. It helps immensely, of course, that he writes good tunes that have certainly remained lodged in my
mind, even if my esteemed colleague Christopher Howell once warned MusicWeb
readers that they should not "expect to carry the tunes in your head for days
after as you do with the best of Johann Strauss II" (review).
If, though, I find nothing wrong with Lanner's tunes in themselves, how can I explain why we aren't able to whistle a few bars of Witches' dance waltz as easily as we can do in the case of The blue Danube? There are, I think, a few possible reasons. In the first place, Lanner's role as a composer for dance was essentially a functional one. He may, as the tracks on this disc indicate, have occasionally experimented with some adventurous orchestration or harmonies, but, given that his primary aim was to please dancers and to accommodate all levels of ability on the ballroom floor, he generally kept conservatively to regular, predictable and danceable tempi.
Secondly, Lanner's scores were mainly produced in the 1820s and 1830s, a few decades too early to reflect to any great extent the changes in musical form and content that we associate with Romanticism in its fully developed form. In particular, the technical limitations imposed by the use of 1830s orchestras give his output a distinctly small scale feel that, within just a few decades, must have seemed rather old fashioned as increasingly larger, more professional bands introduced richer sound palettes and a wider range of musical/emotional expression that appealed to popular taste.
Finally, Lanner's own apparently modest and retiring personality offers another reason why his tunes failed to establish themselves long-term in the popular consciousness. Satisfied, it seems, with being something of a big fish in a small pond, he never strayed far from his comfort zone of Vienna and its ballrooms. In that respect he was the opposite to the consummate international showman and self-promoter Johann Strauss II who demonstrated how waltzes and polkas could be marketed not just as music for dancing but as concert pieces that could be performed to large - and paying - audiences: thus, when, in 1867, London witnessed the local premiere of The blue Danube, the event took place not in a ballroom but in a concert hall.
There is, then, nothing really inadequate about Lanner's melodies per se. They were entirely fit for their original, if admittedly limited, purpose, as evidenced by the very positive reception they enjoyed at the time. Yes, they may lack any greater ambition than to drive people elegantly around the dance floor. Yes, they may be smaller in scale - though not necessarily, as we have noted, in length - than later composers' works. Yes, they may lack the warmth, charm and lovable Gemütlichkeit that later composers brought to the Viennese waltz. But if we approach them with open minds and accept them for what they are, rather than what they are not, we will find them, as Christopher himself did in 2001, utterly "delightful".
While the two longer and more mature waltzes provide us with the most substantial evidence on which to make an assessment of Lanner's music, there are eight more tracks on this new disc. The Styrian dances of 1841 is a piece of, in this context, middling length that stands out from its fellows in that it was written for a theatrical performance by three professional dancers. Is it too fanciful to suggest that here, freed from the constraints of writing for the possibly less-than-nimble feet of Herr und Frau Average, Lanner came close to demonstrating an affinity for ballet? Several of the other pieces here are, though, distinctly more succinct – and although there’s some justification for saying that they thereby lack something in individual character, they nonetheless remain enjoyable at something of a superficial level. Thus, Lanner keeps, in particular, his polkas and his brisk galopades - usually the climax to an evening's jollifications - brief and very much to the point, wary, perhaps, of otherwise over-exerting any self-indulgent Viennese matrons who'd exploited a gap in their dance card to craftily enjoy an extra glass of champagne or an illicit slice of cream-topped Sachertorte.
These days Lanner's music is most widely heard whenever it features in the worldwide TV relays of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's annual concert welcoming in the New Year. Such enjoyable performances - as reviewed, for instance, here) - are, though, probably cases of unnecessary overkill when it comes to works like the jaunty little galop that Lanner himself tossed off to mark an earlier New Year's Day back in 1833 (track 6). In any case, why do we need the VPO in this repertoire when we have the Orchestre de Cannes? A photograph in the CD booklet indicates that the French band has about 40 members and their appropriately light and relatively spare sound certainly suits this type of music. They play, too, with great commitment, vivacity and style. Their Austrian artistic director and conductor Wolfgang Dörner is clearly sympathetic to and entirely at home with this repertoire. His credentials are only bolstered when the booklet notes inform us that he has, among other things, "contributed to an edition of the works of Lanner... and has been responsible for editions for [of all things!] the Vienna Philharmonic New Year Concert".
Naxos's sound engineers have done a first class job on this disc. While some may consider that Robert Letellier's booklet notes over-egg the pudding when they acclaim Joseph Lanner as a "master of an authentic and growing personal inspiration, with an effortless adaptation and expansion of theme and form to shape a masterpiece", they nonetheless provide a welcome and expert introduction to a composer who will be little - if at all - known to many.
Naxos's competitive pricing always encourages taking a risk on unfamiliar material. In this case and after listening to nearly 70 minutes of Lanner's undemanding but nonetheless highly enjoyable music, most buyers will conclude that any risk had turned out to be well justified. Believe me, if you enjoy the music of Lanner’s era you will most certainly like his easy-going tunes. And if, like me, you do so enough that you play the disc more than a few times, I suspect you might even start whistling them too.