Johann Strauss II – Best waltzes and performers (vol. 3) Part 1

(2nd volume can be read here)

It’s time again for another segment of Johann Strauss Jr’s best waltzes again. I really need to take a break from writing exclusively on the Arsenal – it’s never my intention to do so and create another Gooner blog else I’d be writing myself to the ground with these boring international matches being played across the world.

Johann_Strauss_jr_(1825-1899)_1870's

I’d have loved to reserve this creative period of Strauss’ career for his birthday on 25 October but I’ve delayed this for far too long. For this volume, I’d be covering opus 300 – 350 and show you what I believe to be his best waltzes during this important milestone. I’m also keeping it simple this time round: as time goes by, more and more of Strauss music become available to the masses, so it’s quite immaterial to list down the particular album where one could acquire that piece of music.

(1) Flugschriften Walzer (“Pamphlets”) op. 300

Flugschriften

Well, we kick off with opus 300!

This waltz is largely suffused with plaintive melodies that for each optimistic-sounding sections, these would stick out like a sore thumb. Case in point – Waltz 3B which is simple in construction but lends an overall renewed joy over the previous discontent-sounding sections. The middle sections are somewhat mundane although still on better footing than his other works dating from around the same time (e.g. the waltz Bürgerweisen op.306 “Citizen Airs” which is quite sweet-sounding but is really only a lot of fluff) .

The beauty of this work, however, is to be found more in its construction: the flow and grandeur is apparent, but is constantly suppressed until the very end, when we are treated with the customary Strauss’ gift for joy. 

Listeners have two versions that are readily available on the market – go for Willi Boskovsky’s take with the Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester on EMI or Alfred Walter’s equally compelling interpretation leading the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice) on the Naxos label. Boskovsky clocks in approximately 15 seconds earlier than Alfred Walter but both are also similarly guilty for skimping on some sections that are to be repeated.    

(2) Wiener Bonbons Walzer (“Vienna Sweets”) op. 307

Wiener_bonbons

I’m skipping the aforementioned Bürgerweisen waltz and zooming straight to a familiar favourite – the Viennese Sweets waltz!

The sonorous-sounding Introduction is treated in the same vein as the earlier Flugschriften, but from thereon, all notions of similarity are dispelled. The upbeat Viennese tune in Waltz 1A is, again, simple in construction but utterly effective and infectious in optimism. Waltz 1B is probably what first-time listeners would remember best, though. One aspect of Strauss’ ideas survives the Flugschriften structure – the repeated Waltz 1A after the conclusion of 1B.

I can’t find a waltz section that’s not to like from this composition: I loved this piece immensely. In fact, I was thumbing through a Dictionary of Music way back in 1995 and saw this work listed as a major work under Johann Strauss II’s entry. At that time, I said to myself that I must seek out this work in whatever form and hear it out.

I got my wish.

In early 1996, I spotted one CD on the massive ‘Music for the Millions’ series (volume 18) containing this waltz and the “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” opus 443 and bought it. Best of all – the works are performed by my favourite Viennese orchestra – Wiener Volksoper.

This is, therefore, the version that you should go for.

Willi Boskovsky handled this work far too carelessly for my sensibilities – both with the Wiener Johann Strauss ensemble and the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. His trademark Viennese lilt only sounds right on certain pieces. I should point out, though, that the version by Georges Prêtre leading the VPO for the 2010 New Year’s Concert is recommended as well.

(3) An der schönen, blauen Donau (“On the Beautiful Blue Danube”) op. 314

Donauwalzer op. 314

The first time I heard Austria’s unofficial national anthem was in 1994 when I was in the car listening to a tape of Strauss’ music. I got goose-bumps hearing the world-famous three notes for the first time.

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Excited; probably grateful that I got to hear something so beautiful and inspired in my life.

I still do now.

Take your pick from Willi Boskovsky’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the Decca label, or the Wiener Volksoper Orchester version with Alfred Scholz. Aside from that, Zubin Mehta’s 1990 interpretation for the Neujahrskonzert with the VPO is also one of the best I’ve heard. On the flip side, as this work is Strauss’ most famous, there are tons of recordings out there that you could judge for yourselves.

(4) Künstlerleben Walzer (“Artists’ Life”) op. 316

artists studio

When I first heard this waltz on issue 32 of the Classical Collection in 1994, I was astounded and was rudely awakened.

Up until that point, I had wrongly assumed that Johann Strauss wrote only cheerful and carefree music. Artists’ Life spat out the naiveté and stomped on it repeatedly. This pensive work dispels the false notion that Strauss can’t write dramatic dance music. It’s a valse triste in a way, but Strauss himself dictated the outcome – coupling Viennese flair with the same sort of despair that would make Jean Sibelius proud, even with the benefit of hindsight for the Finn.

All the evidence are there – the mournful Introduction quickly giving way into a fiery and abrupt close – the restless Waltz 2A and its fading waltz beats. Listen out for the Waltz 3A and B – it’s superb. Waltz 4A and B are just ok. Waltz 5A show us the relentless plaintiveness that pervades this work while the inspired Coda is one of Strauss’ finest.

(5) Die Publicisten (“The Publicists”) Walzer op. 321

heut spielt der Strauss

One of my all-time favourite – the suave and sharp ‘Publicists’ Waltz’. Everything Viennese and uplifting here.

Go for the right interpretation which is the one and only Riccardo Muti leading the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the Neujahrskonzert 1993 and be prepared for utterly irresistible Strauss tunes and merriment.

I would strongly not recommend Alfred Walter’s flat and purposeless version on Naxos, though. Just listen to the splendid Waltz 2A and 2B of both versions (if you can) and you’d find out why. Muti’s direction literally blows the Walter humdrum out of the water.

(6) G’schichten aus dem Wienerwald (“Tales from the Vienna Woods”) op. 325

Waldmueller_Vorfruehling_Wienerwald_Viennese_Forest_Spring_GA543_g

This waltz could lay claim as one of the first that I’ve ever heard in my life. Again, the beguiling Waltz 1A did give me goose bumps as well. It’s that lovely.

I was kind of surprised with the zither solo at first, but soon realized that Strauss’ music at this time had evolved from mere dance accompaniment to a bona fide concert piece in its own right. Right from the exuberant Introduction to the various Viennese folk dances that inspired Strauss – this is one of the best waltzes you’d ever listen to in your life. Waltz 3A is probably the only boring part but the others are magnificent.

For this waltz, you won’t go wrong with the Wiener Volksoper Orchester version. But head straight for the Classical Collection vol. 8 version. There’s also another Volksoper interpretation which is complete in almost every manner possible (something which the abovementioned version lacked as regards the Waltz 2A) but is more dour-sounding and rather flat.

I’m not convinced by Boskovsky’s take on this waltz and neither the Ferenc Fricsay’s version on the Deutsche Grammophon label which is long and exhausting on the senses.

(7) Illustrationen Walzer (“Illustrations” op. 331

This work may not be as sparkling as the upcoming Wein, weib und Gesang op. 333, but it has a certain measure of gaiety that renders it charming and disarmingly cheerful. Posterity, though, has not treated it kindly.

For one – very few interpretations exist. Johannes Wildner’s conducting of this waltz on the esteemed Naxos label is very flat like bad, warm champagne. I remembered buying the Johann Strauss complete edition CD featuring this work and came away unimpressed – the tempo is ponderous and slow whereas the exciting parts are suppressed that I can’t tell the difference from its more subdued passages.

Fortunately (for once), we had Willi Boskovsky directing the Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester with finesse and the right touch of verve. Sure, he still misses out on some waltz parts but with what he did do, he did it splendidly. Check out the CD on the website.

If you do want to give Herr Wildner’s version a spin, you may do so – just remember to set the playback speed at 0.1x faster and you’re set. Enjoy this little-known gem.

(8) Wein, weib und Gesang (“Wine, Women and Song”) op. 333

muehlberg_06_wernichtliebtweinweibundgesang

Ooh la la.

wein weib und gesang

This is a choral waltz written by Strauss in 1869. The format of the Viennese waltz at that time probably underwent some serious changes with Johann Jr leading the front-line.

Strauss’ choral waltzes, usually written for the Wiener Männergesang-verein (‘Vienna Men’s Choral Association’) are similarly structured works – a rather lengthy Introduction, Waltz 1A/B, Waltz 2A/B, Waltz 3A/B, Waltz 4A/B, Waltz 5A/B and then straight to a short finish. There’s no meaningful Coda to speak of- only a short musical rump at the end of Waltz 5B.

For this waltz, the 137-bar Introduction is placid-sounding and contemplative, which is a direct opposite of contents that follow. Again, it’s convenient to overlook Strauss’ ability to conjure quasi-serious musical works but he could well have written a full-length symphony and no-one would blink an eye.

Anyway, this waltz is recommended for its infectious exuberance and mood-swings: from lushly romantic to brazen confidence.

One thing – I’m about to recommend the Wiener Volksoper Orchester version again for this one. But you’d have to seek out the version clocking in at roughly 5:45. Anything home more than that time is a dud. The reason is this – already the long Introduction is removed entirely and what’s left of the waltz part is all glitz and excitement. So, it’s best done in typical Viennese good-humor and charm which the shorter Volksoper version had in bagful. Why, even the snare drumroll and flourish at the end is just so VPO in execution that it’s one of the most perfect Strauss endings ever.

Don’t be astonished at the chopped-off Introduction – Willi Boskovsky has been guilty of this as well (conducting the Wiener Johann Strauss orchestra) in EMI, although he did record a full-length version for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra which is quite impressive, it must be said.

Erich Kunzel’s delightful take with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (“Ein Straussfest II”: Telarc) is also sublime, as is the entire CD, by the way.

(9) Freuet Euch des Lebens! (“Enjoy Life”) op. 340

Musikverein_wien

Strauss’ waltz is one of the last few compositions that are independent of his stage works, which would pervade and occupy the creative genius for the rest of his life.

This attractive and brilliant work also seldom gets the attention it deserves but again, the lack of initiative shown by recording companies are to blame.

To my best knowledge, only three interpretations exist – a rather scratchy Volksoper version of dubious conducting identity; a Boskovsky version with the VPO on Decca; and a Naxos version with Alfred Walter leading the Slovak State Philharmonic.

All are reasonably-compelling records although Herr Boskovsky and Herr Walter collectively see the need to skimp on the repeat sections of the work again.

(10) Neu-Wien (“New Vienna”) op. 342

1296984572_164345503_1-Immagini-di--SPARTITO-MUSICA-VIENNA-STRAUSS-la-nouvelle-vienne-barbizet-1873-stampa

This is another fine waltz which began life as a choral work.

The whole work is bubbly and enthusiastic and would definitely set you off in a good spirit. I particularly loved the crazy Waltz 5B. 

The Naxos version featuring Alfred Walter and the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra is probably the only recording you would ever see in the market. Nevertheless, it’s a good performance and one you should enjoy.

(11) Tausend und Eine Nacht Walzer (“Thousand and One Nights”) op. 346

It’s hard to rate a waltz culled from music of Strauss’ stage works. For me, it could be so easily misconstrued to be a rush job. For the maestro, though, it would only mean a bigger paycheck. If the stage work does well, then some memorable tunes appearing in pianoforte editions of independent works would also sell some more copies for a nice profit.

scheherazade

But putting aside the commercial aspersions involved, Strauss masterfully woved this waltz from various melodies of his first operetta, Indigo und die Vierzig Räuber (“Indigo and the Forty Thieves”). The rather interesting overture is also another work worth listening to. The sonorous Arabian-nights nostalgia was invoked with skill although the same feeling won’t be experienced for the rest of the piece.

The A-major Waltz 1A is also another Strauss’ masterstroke. It may seem plain at first listen but it does serve as a link to the next few waltz sections. And who could forget the bewitching Waltz 2? I could even play it from memory if I had the keyboard here now.

Willi Boskovsky leads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a rousing rendition of this Strauss’ masterpiece.

If you’re up to some bit of variety, try the very rare recording on Columbia Records featuring Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra. The Russian conductor re-arranged Strauss’ bevy of waltzes into one helluva gala – a glittering party.

 

(Part 2 of Volume 3 will be published shortly)        

  

             

        

 

 

 

        

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3 Responses to Johann Strauss II – Best waltzes and performers (vol. 3) Part 1

  1. Dan Glass says:

    I have highly enjoyed these reviews. They have served as a guide as I peruse the Naxos set. For the Tausend und Eine Nacht Walzer (one of my favorites) a worthy comparison recording is the old Arthur Fiedler recording with his Boston Pops — for me he really nails it with this piece. There are subtleties in the Walter recording (Naxos 29), but overall it is unsatisfactory. Boskovsky is a bit too boisterous. (Aside on Boskovsky — don’t you think his omitting repeats etc. might be due to the producers wanting to get more material on a CD disc?) Anyway, hope you continue this series. Going beyond the 15 or so Strauss “hits” I’ve known all my life has really been a revelation. Dan Glass

  2. Artur says:

    Many thanks for your comments, Dan.
    I, too, would like to hear Arthur Fiedler’s version of the op. 346. As you have pointed out, the Naxos version is quite flat – I’m not really a fan of Walter’s recordings and I would opt for them only if I can’t find an alternative.

    Boskovsky’s recordings are boisterous and (it’s hard to describe) quite clumsy-sounding in general. I think that the waltzes which he conducted with the Wiener Johann Strauss is not as good as the Vienna Philharmonic recordings.

    I’m not sure about whether producers are inclined to cram as many records as possible into a CD but I’ve sort of detected that if the Coda of a Strauss waltz features an earlier waltz phrase, Boskovsky is likely to skip the repeat in the waltz proper.

    To be honest, I was quite disappointed with a number of Johann Strauss waltzes after hearing them on the Naxos collection (presumably because Strauss had difficulty getting suitable ideas for a compact form such as the waltz) – like Konigslieder op. 334, Bürgerweisen op. 306, and Gartenlaube walzer op. 461 which I had eagerly anticipated.

    I have mapped out vol. 4 (which covers op. 400 to somewhere mid-400) for my next edition and I’m fleshing out its contents now, so pls stay tuned. There are not many waltzes left to go for anyway, so I might start a series on his most famous polkas and marches later.

  3. Dan Glass says:

    Artur — Looking forward to the 4th installment. Of the Naxos set, my favorite overall disc is #34 — perhaps the slavic and russian themes are most congenial for the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, for beside the Abschied von St Petersburg discussed in these pages, even the marches and polkas are highly enjoyable. Another conductor I like is Carl Michalski with the Vienna Opera or Volksopera Orchestras. These appear on a number of budget discs, unfortunately staying pretty much with the most popular Strauss II repertoire.

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