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Strauss in St Petersburg
Track list at end of review
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 1 May 2012 & 29 June-2 July 2015, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia
Reviewed as a Studio Master download (24/48) from Chandos.net
Pdf booklet included
CHANDOS CHAN10937 [82:49]

Having built his reputation on the heavy stuff – Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich – the conductor Neeme Järvi is now focusing on lighter fare. I’ve reviewed his recordings of music by Chabrier, Offenbach, Raff, Saint-Saëns and Suppé, and while there’s much to admire there the performances aren’t always as supple or spontaneous as I’d like. Ironically, I found the youngest Järvi, Kristjan, rather more engaging in his recent Sousa collection with the RSNO. Now that’s how this repertoire should be played, with flair and a sense of fun.

Those who love Strauss will have their favourite conductors, Willi Boskovsky, Carlos Kleiber and Herbert von Karajan high among them, and there’s no denying that Viennese orchestras have a special way with this music. I was reminded of that when I reviewed Jakob Kreizberg’s selection of waltzes, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at their most idiomatic and elegant. I feel they play much better for him than they do for Manfred Honeck, whose VSO/Strauss recordings sound a little too efficient for my taste.

As for Järvi’s hometown band, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, they’ve certainly impressed me in the past – their recording of Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests, with his other son, Paavo, comes to mind – but I did wonder at the choice of ensemble in this instance. Also, I’ve had misgivings about some recent Chandos releases, which have been spoilt by too many ‘hi-fi moments’. But rather than speculate further I started to listen, turning to Peter Kemp’s very detailed liner-notes for details of Strauss’s links with Russia.

Strangely enough it all started with a railway – from St Petersburg to Pavlovsk – and the owners’ desire to attract more passengers. To that end they set up Vauxhall Pavilion, a music and entertainments venue, in Pavlovsk Park. The company first engaged Strauss for a series of concerts there in 1856, and such was the success of this venture that it lasted for eleven seasons. However, not all the pieces played here have a connection with Russia in general or St Petersburg in particular.

First impressions? Very mixed, I’m afraid. As I suspected Järvi is not only swift he’s also brusque, and while the orchestra play well enough they lack the ease and idiom required for this music. That’s particularly noticeable in the well-known pieces – the Pizzicato Polka and Wine, Women and Song! for example – which are much too routine to engage the ear or invite affection. As for the rest, much of it is obscure and/or sub-par, which does nothing to enhance the appeal of this album. Take the Neva and Olga polkas for instance; I can only find alternative recordings of these two pieces on the 52-CD Strauss set from Naxos (8.505226).

Add to that the fact that there’s so little joy in these performances, and you’ll begin to understand why I found this collection so dispiriting. At least the Estonian National Male Choir bring some much-needed lift to the proceedings with their splendid contribution to the Peasants’ Polka. Alas, I’m much less enthusiastic about the soprano Olga Zeitseva’s account of First Love, by the Russian composer Olga Smirnitskaya, with whom Strauss had a fling in 1858. It’s quite attractive, but scarcely worth a second hearing, especially in this less-than-subtle outing.

That pretty much encapsulates my feelings about this album as a whole: second-rate Strauss played by a conductor and orchestra who seem ill at ease with this repertoire. Factor in dry, airless sound and the whole enterprise begins to look like a serious misjudgement. Regrettably, it does nothing to enhance Järvi’s once formidable reputation.

Swift, almost cursory performances of second-rate Strauss; one to avoid.

Dan Morgan

Track list

Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Newa-Polka (Neva Polka), Op. 288 (1864) [3:48]
Persischer Marsch (Persian March), Op. 289 [1:43]
Russischer Marsch (Russian March), Op. 426 (1886) [2:43]
Großfürstin Alexandra-Walzer (Grand Duchess Alexandra Waltz), Op. 181 (1856) [6:32]
Olga-Polka, Op. 196 (1857) [2:49]
Alexandrinen-Polka, Op. 198 (1857) [4:27]
Abschied von St Petersburg (Farewell to St Petersburg), Op. 210 (1858) [7:58]
Bauern-Polka (Peasants' Polka), Op. 276 (1863) [2:47]
Johann STRAUSS II/Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)
Pizzicato-Polka (1869) [2:31]
Großfürsten-Marsch (Grand Dukes' March), Op. 107 (1852) [2:05]
Olga SMIRNITSKAYA (1837-1920)
Erste Liebe (First Love), Op. 14 (1877-1878, orch. Michael Rot)* [2:42]
Vergnügungszug (Pleasure Train), Op. 281 (1864) [2:45]
Wein, Weib und Gesang! (Wine, Woman and Song!), Op. 333 (1869) [11:09]
Krönungs-Marsch (Coronation March), Op. 183 (1856) [2:16]
Hofball-Quadrille (Court Ball Quadrille), Op. 116 (1852) [4:42]
An der Wolga (By the Volga), Op. 425 (1886) [4:21]
St Petersburg, Op. 255 (1861) [4:59]
Auf zum Tanza! (Let's Dance!), Op. 436 (1888) [2:50]
Russische Marsch-Fantasie (Russian March Fantasy), Op. 353 (1872) [3:37]
Alexander-Quadrille, Op. 33 (1847) [4:31]
Estonian National Male Choir (Peasants’ Polka)
Olga Zeitseva (soprano) (First Love)


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