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,
Reviewed as a Studio Master download (24/48) from
Pdf booklet included
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
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
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
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.
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
(Neva Polka), Op. 288 (1864) [3:48]
(Persian March), Op. 289 [1:43]
(Russian March), Op. 426 (1886) [2:43]
(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]
(Peasants' Polka), Op. 276 (1863) [2:47]
Johann STRAUSS II/Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)
Johann STRAUSS II
(Grand Dukes' March), Op. 107 (1852) [2:05]
Olga SMIRNITSKAYA (1837-1920)
(First Love), Op. 14 (1877-1878, orch. Michael Rot)* [2:42]
Johann STRAUSS II
(Pleasure Train), Op. 281 (1864) [2:45]
Wein, Weib und Gesang!
(Wine, Woman and Song!), Op. 333 (1869) [11:09]
(Coronation March), Op. 183 (1856) [2:16]
(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]
(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)