Johann STRAUSS (1825-1899)
Kaiserwalzer (Emperor Waltz) Op. 437 (1889) [11:23]
Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales from the Vienna Woods) Op. 325* (1868) [12:52]
Künstlerleben (Artist’s Life) Op. 316 (1867) [9:39]
Nordseebilder (North Sea Pictures) Op. 390 (1880) [8:46]
An der schönen blauen Donau (The Blue Danube) Op. 314 (1867) [10:24]
Rosen aus dem Süden (Roses from the South) Op. 388 (1880) [9:53]
*Wilfried Scharf (zither)
Wiener Symphoniker/Yakov Kreizberg
rec. June 2004, Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD  
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186052 SACD [63:24]

The Russian-born conductor Yakov Kreizberg, who died at the age of 51, is one of those figures I’ve known about but failed to investigate. Until now, that is. In the wake of Gustavo Dudamel’s New Year’s Day Concert 2017 and the sometimes heated debate it generated I went trawling for some soothing Strauss. My first hit on NativeDSD was Kreizberg’s 2004 recording with the Wiener Symphoniker, of which he was principal guest conductor from 2003 to 2009. Having reviewed Manfred Honeck’s Salzburg Straussfest with the same orchestra I thought this a good opportunity to sample Kreizberg’s art and hear the VSO on home turf (the Konzerthaus).

Michael Cookson liked those Honeck performances very much indeed, but I found them a little too brisk and efficient at times. The Festpielhaus recording, made by the orchestra’s own label, isn’t terribly engaging either; not only that, the bass is somewhat boomy. Still, there are some good things there, not least lively accounts of two Josef Strauss polkas, Die Libelle (The Butterfly) and Feuerfest! (Fireproof!). I suspect my caveats won’t deter Honeck fans, who’ll also flock to buy his new VSO album, Frühling in Wien.

My only concern about Kreizberg’s programme – which only has one work in common with Honeck’s – was a possible lack of variety; perhaps these elegant waltzes should have been spiced up with a polka or two, a galop even. Still, there’s no denying the VSO’s fine playing which, under Kreizberg, seems far more spontaneous than it does under Honeck. Then there’s the startling presence of Pentatone’s recording, evident from that ear-pricking introduction to the Emperor Waltz. There’s plenty to smile about here, with supple – but not swoony – rhythms and just enough control from the podium to sustain a sense of hauteur.

Even in the Konzerthaus the VSO timps have an unusual, slightly hollow quality, but that matters not a jot when the recording is this good. In particular, balance engineer Erdo Groot manages to ‘terrace’ the sound in a way that brings out all the variety and richness of Strauss’s multi-layered score. Really, one has to marvel at the composer’s ability to reinvent – and reinvigorate – this dance form. Of course, Kreizberg’s attention to blend, colour and dynamics is equally important. And what a glorious climax to this imperial – and imperious – opener, the DSD recording full and fearless to the very end.

The stand-out performance here is Tales from the Vienna Woods, due in no small measure to Wilfried Scharf and his zither. And while Kreizberg is always clear-eyed he also has a feel for the incipient schmaltz of these pieces. There’s beauty too, the ease and elegance of the VSO’s playing keeping me in goose-bumps much of the time. But Scharf is the real star here, his solos adding a wonderful sense of gemütlichkeit to the proceedings. He certainly deserves an ovation for his wistful sign-off; ditto Groot and recording engineer Roger de Schot, who capture it all so well.

Artist’s Life, premiered just three days after The Blue Danube, is nicely shaped and naturally sprung. Kreizberg, admirably focused throughout, then coaxes his orchestra into a magnificent and proportionate finale; thanks to those fine balances the snare-drum roll emerges from the mix just as it would in the concert hall. As for North Sea Pictures, it was composed on the promenade at Wyk, on the North Sea island of Föhr. From its brooding preamble the music soon morphs into a rippling waltz, the bass drum a reminder of the ocean’s elemental power. Not Strauss at his best, perhaps, but I can’t imagine the work better done than it is here.

Next up is The Blue Danube, which sounds as eloquent and evocative as ever. Again, Kreizberg combines gentle discipline with a degree of indulgence that allows his players to ‘go with the flow’ as it were. That said, he insists on clarity of textures, and that reveals felicities and flourishes that aren’t always audible in this much-played piece. Others may bring out more of the river’s majesty, but few gauge its eddies and currents as well as Kreizberg does. He’s equally insightful in the medley Roses from the South, culled from Strauss’s operetta The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief. It’s a genial thing, full of lovely touches. At one point I thought: is that a cuckoo calling from a distant copse?

In his review of Kreizberg’s all-Russian album with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, Nick Barnard refers to a booklet photograph of the conductor, already ill, ‘beaming from ear to ear’. I’d like to think this Strauss collection pleased him as much; it certainly brightened up a dull January day for me. These polished, very personal performances have now piqued my interest in this conductor, whose Pentatone recordings are all available from NativeDSD. His Monte Carlo ones, on that orchestra’s own label, look pretty enticing too.

Spirit-renewing performances, supremely well played and recorded; a must for audiophiles and Strauss fans alike.

Dan Morgan

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