There are several fine SACDs and DVD-As featuring the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics in New Year concerts. These large modern orchestras, of course, have the ultimate sophistication and opulence, very far from the small orchestras run by the Strauss family during their long reign over the dance-crazy Viennese. Now we have an opportunity to hear the music played by a smaller provincial orchestra, with the expected greater prominence of woodwind and brass over strings.
The programme is an interesting one, offering many first appearances on SACD for music featuring several generations of the Strauss dynasty. It begins with Josef Strauss' Sphärenklänge waltz, whose beguiling and shimmering introduction glides exquisitely into its glorious first waltz melody, truly music of the spheres. I have a very soft spot for Josef Strauss's works, he has greater subtlety and a melodic gift at least equal to that of his brother. Conductor Heiko Mathias Förster phrases these sensuous tunes with loving care, holding back a little and then accelerating quite naturally to point the phrases. After the resplendent waltz sequence, we have one of Josef's many polkas, 'Harlekin', featuring a very cheeky clarinet solo with gusty accompaniment. A rarely-heard polka by Johann Strauss II takes over, fully belying its title of 'Luzifer' with the woodwind choir's tunes interrupted by thunderous crashes on the bass and snare drums.
Eduard Strauss, composer of the 'Carmen Quadrille', was the youngest son of Johann Strauss Senior. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was to have accidentally set fire to the entire Strauss family manuscript archive - more than three trucks-worth! Nonetheless, the Carmen piece is uproarious fun, with the familiar tunes of Bizet's opera jumbled together in most unexpected combinations - completely irreverent, and all for the purpose of the dance.
Eduard's son, yet another Johann Strauss, provides his own fast polka, 'Schlau-Schlau', leading to three pieces by Johann Strauss II which are unashamed advertising for his opera 'Die Fledermaus'. 'Du und Du' is a waltz concocted from triple-time music in the opera. In the 'Fledermaus Quadrille' he presents us with some of the arias in a splendidly tongue-in-cheek self-parody, giving the conductor some brutal gear-changes to negotiate in the process. Finally comes the famous 'Tac-Tak Polka' featuring more tunes from Fledermaus.
Two more sparkling and witty polkas from Josef, 'Eingesendet' and 'Vorwärts' (Forward!) bring us to the final two items in the concert. Johann Strauss II wrote his Emperor Waltz in 1889 to celebrate the meeting of the emperors from both the German and Austro-Hungarian empires in Berlin. It is one of his most extended waltz sequences, and begins with a quiet march theme, creating tension by holding back the waltz time, which is finally heralded by a soulful 'cello solo. Johann Strauss I closes the proceedings with another symbol of Austro-Hungarian power, the Radetsky March.
The freshness and committment of the Neuen Philharmonie Westfalen is everywhere evident, and the prominence of woodwind and brass certainly pay dividends in revealing the inner workings of the Strauss family's expert orchestrations. There is also a certain appealing rustic element in the air. As a concert, this programme hangs together very well and the rarely heard items are a great bonus.
High-definition sound gives extra pleasure to this feel-good music, and here the sound-stage is realistically projected, although the hall has rather hard surfaces which tends to give a slightly bright sound. There is a visceral bass drum, and in multi-channel, hard reflections from the hall's back wall sometimes give the impression that the tympani and snare-drum are coming from the rear channels. This is a minor point, however, and the performances have all the colour that they deserve. As the recording is not a live performance it carries no applause, unlike the several Vienna/Berlin discs. You can hear the Radetsky March without the Viennese clapping along for once!
The insert notes are in German and English, well-illustrated with colour session photos and contemporary illustrations of the Strauss milieu.
Recommended for a change from the sometimes complacent and super-sophisticated Strauss readings of the big orchestras. One is closer here to the dancers, and the music refreshes even the most jaded spirit.
Copyright © 2008 John Miller and SA-CD.net