Johann Strauss II – Best waltzes and performers (vol. 1)

strauss

Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Herr Maestro!

25 October 2011 marks the 186th anniversary of the birth of Johann Strauss II. I’m not aware of any commemoration or similar festivities being held in his native Vienna but I’d like to do my bit to ensure that his name lives on forever in posterity. The list as follows is my choice of his best waltzes together with my comments for the best performers for the particular piece of work.

stadtpark strauss denkmal 

I’d like to also draw your attention to a few details first before we proceed –

(i) musical era – Like all other major contemporary composers of his day like Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms and more, Johann Strauss II also had what I’d deem to be musical milestones during his entire career. His early works bore close reverence to his father’s compositions and are seldom inspired, his middle period bore some of his finest creations whereas his later works are pervasively pensive and reflective in nature. Hence, I’d be choosing at least one work from his compositional periods to reflect the best each musical epoch has to offer starting from this volume 1.

(ii) orchestra (performers) – one man’s meat is another’s poison. I don’t really like Willy Boskovsky’s interpretation of Strauss’ waltzes mainly because he was lazy and tended to skip most of the repeat signs in the works, shortening the pieces unnecessarily and lending a sense of lacking in fulfillment. By contrast, there are overtly hardworking conductors who literally obeyed Strauss’ directions to the letter as to how certain pieces are to be played such as Johannes Wildner. Sadly, while I admire Wildner for his hard-work, his craft tend to be rather dull and unidiomatic and certain works would pan out very long indeed. For the balanced approach to Strauss’ works, I’d opt for Wiener Volksoper’s performances which were usually under the direction of Alfred Scholz, Peter Falk and / or Paul Angerer. There are also some interesting efforts made by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Reiner which are polished and are infinitely worth checking out. The average Strauss waltz should take no more than ten minutes to complete (Introduction + five two-part waltz chain (repeated) + Coda + End) although certain magnificent examples such as the Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor-Waltz) op. 437 and the G’schichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales from the Vienna Woods) op. 325 do rank as some of his longer compositions. 

(iii) Johann Strauss II’s repertoire – is mostly made of dance music: waltzes, polkas, marches, quadrilles and the odd independent piece or two such as his HochzeitsPräludium op. 469 and the Fest-Polonaise op. 352. While I’m partial to Strauss’ waltzes as opposed to his other dance pieces (he’s the Waltz King after all), it’d be more appropriate to actually highlight each category separately and compile the best. However, just because certain works do not make the final list doesn’t mean that it is not worthy of attention – most of Strauss’ works are, for the most part, cleverly crafted and are little masterpieces in its own right. What follows, therefore, is a (painfully) concise list in the interest of space and time.

vicball

Waltzes (in no particular order)

Early era – (opus 1 – 200)

(i) (Freiheitslieder – Walzer) Songs of Freedom op. 52

The Austrian Empire was racked by internal turmoil in the 1848 Revolutions which spread throughout the vast Habsburg domain. Johann Strauss, Jr. sided with the Revolutionaries whereas his father opted to stay loyal to the Danube monarchy, even composing his famous Radetzky-Marsch op. 228 in reverence of the brilliant Austrian field marshal Josef Radetzky von Radetz. This composition is not especially sanguine like ‘La Marseillaise’ and I particularly liked this waltz for its spontaneity and melodic grace, especially beginning from Waltz 3A to Waltz 5B which you can’t find in his earlier works. This waltz, however and sadly, is rarely heard these days.

(Johann Strauss II – Edition vol. 17 – Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alfred Eschwé.) The conducting was brilliant and lively although the recorded sound was somewhat lightweight.)

vienna 1848

(ii) (Mephistos Höllenrufe – Walzer) Mephistopheles’ Cries from Hell op. 101

This waltz was composed in 1851 for a grand promenade festival and was one of the breakthrough works for Johann Strauss, Jr. who could finally cast aside his father’s shackles and dominating influence with this stylish work. Waltz 2A is where the element of surprise is whereas the rest of the work is rather expected although Waltz 3B and Waltz 5A constantly reminds us that the title of the work is not merely one of convenience. The Naxos recording sounds rather light (and misses out on one or two repeat signs) but is no less inferior than the Vienna Philharmonic version. This work is quite popular, especially with the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year concert edition released not too long ago.

(Johann Strauss II – 100 Famous Works Vol. 4 – Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alfred Walter.) or

(Wiener Philharmoniker Orchester – Neujahrskonzert 2008 directed by Georges Prêtre)

 

(iii) (Windsor-Klänge – Walzer) Echoes from Windsor op. 104

This severely underrated waltz was first performed in 1852 and dedicated to Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland (with kind patronage by the 11th Earl Westmorland, John Fane).

Waltz 1A is probably one of the best in Strauss’ early repertoire and Waltzes 3A, 3B, 4A and 4B are especially tuneful. This composition is seldom performed nowadays.

(Johann Strauss II – Edition vol. 17 – Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alfred Eschwé.)

Windsor

(iv) (Liebeslieder Walzer) Songs of Love op. 114

One of Strauss’ earliest masterworks and is easily accessible without much difficulty. Each waltz section is sublime and is infectiously joy-invoking. There are two Wiener Volksoper versions but I usually favour the one clocking in at 9 minutes 45 seconds for its measured pace. Willy Boskovsky also had an alternative small string orchestra interpretation of this work which also sounds perfect.

(Classical Collection vol. 32 – Wiener Volksoper Orchester conducted by Alfred Scholz)

(Dances of Old Vienna vol. 4 – Willy Boskovsky and soloists)

 

(v) (Schneeglöckchen Walzer) Snowdrops op. 143 

First performed in 1854, this deeply reflective yet lovely waltz ranks as amongst my personal faves. It does sound a little too depressed for ballroom dancing and not decidedly appropriate for more festive occasions, but the wintry landscape that Strauss paints with this waltz is indescribably wonderful. Listen out for Willy Boskovsky’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (released by Decca records on a luscious 6-CD set of Strauss family works) replete with bells for that complete winter wonderland scenario. The junior Strauss truly came of age with this creation in 3/4 time.

(Willy Boskovsky and the Wiener Philharmoniker Orchester)

schneeglöckchen (photo credits where due)

(vi) (Novellen Walzer) Legal Amendments op. 146

This waltz is never really well-known and what pity! It does have the semblance of a concert waltz (i.e. one for purely listening purposes) though its inner energy is bubbly and effervescent. Every waltz section was well-crafted and linked well with each other and particularly noteworthy was Waltz 3A and 3B. Aside from Naxos making the effort to ensure that this delightful work is made known to posterity, no other recording company seems to be following likewise.

(Johann Strauss II – Edition vol. 19 – Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alfred Walter)

 

(vii) (Telegrapische Depeschen Walzer) Telegraphic Despatches op. 195

The waltz dates from around 1857 and the Introduction does start with an imitation of tapping telegraph lines. The rest of the waltz, though, doesn’t have any such reference to a relatively new invention in the 19th century. This charming work has some moments of inspiration – Waltz 4A and 5A are particularly disarming yet simplistic.

telegraph despatches 

( Johann Strauss II – Edition vol. 28 – Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra Košice conducted by Johannes Wildner)

 

Also strongly consider the following

Sängerfahrten – Walzer (Singers’ Journeys) op. 41

Einheitsklänge – Walzer (Sounds of Unity) op. 62

Lava-Ströme – Walzer (Streams of Lava) op. 74

Funf Paragraphen aus der Walzer-Codex (Five Paragraphs from the Waltz Code) op. 105

Phoenix-Schwingen Walzer (Wings of the Phoenix) op. 125

Wellen und Wogen – Walzer (Waves and Billows) op. 141

Myrthen-Kränze – Walzer (Myrtle Wreaths) op. 154

Nachtfalter – Walzer (Moths) op. 157

Man Lebt Nur Einmal – Walzer (You only Live Once!) op. 167

Wien, mein Sinn – Walzer (Vienna, my heart) op. 192

 

(volume 2 to commence in due course)

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