Johann Strauss II – Best waltzes and performers (vol. 3) Part 2

(the first part of Vol. 3 can be read here)

johann strauss silhouette

In this Part 2, I’d be covering the more famous waltzes from the mid opus 300s onwards. We now start with another quintessential Viennese classic –

(1) Wiener Blut (“Vienna Blood”) op. 354

Johann_Strauss_Sohn_Wiener_Blut_op_354

Gisela and Leopold 1872

The joyous strains of this famous waltz was crafted as dedication to Princess Gisela of Austria and Prince Leopold of Bavaria on occasion of their wedding in 1873.

Not only was this waltz famous for these two reasons – there’s also a third.

 

 

Did you know that the critically-acclaimed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra once insisted that they would rather not have any connection with the dance music of Vienna’s favourite son as they are only ‘light music’ and deemed not ‘serious’ enough? ‘Light’ as compared to what, these once-snobbish and pompous buffoons? Well, they are a ‘philharmonic’ society, so they do have certain artistic standards to uphold. Still, you can’t be playing Anton Bruckner’s dreary symphonies all the time – even I can’t be tuning in to Beethoven’s divine music every single day. Fortunately, in tradition-stifled Austria of the late 19th century, someone was able to look outside their pince-nez and say “Johann Strauss’ music best personified Vienna”. Or rather – Johann Strauss II is already so famous in Europe that an august ensemble like the Vienna Philharmonic could no longer deny his remarkable influence towards music on the continental scene.

So, armed with the knowledge that this waltz was intended for members of the royalty and with such a fine orchestra backing him, Johann Strauss duly delivered – a sublime waltz of inestimable Viennese charm.

You’d love Waltz 1A – the graceful tunes that only Strauss himself could effortlessly create.

I first heard this waltz in 1994 and it quickly became a favourite. To me, it was one of the most perfect of Strauss waltzes. I mean – it had everything: an excellent Waltz 1A (which is always a crucial element for me), a chain of four two-part waltzes that ensure adequate length for a piece of this calibre (for satisfaction, if you understand) and a rousing finale at the end, underlined by a timpani drumroll. See, Strauss had pretty much thought of everything – a royal waltz should be endowed with some grandeur, so only a timpani drumroll would do like the Kaiser-Walzer op. 437. 

Much-misunderstood budget producer Alfred Scholz leads the Wiener Volksoper Orchester in a well-executed rendition of this Strauss classic. Zubin Mehta directing the excellent Vienna Philharmonic in the 1990 New Year’s Concert is also another version that you should look out for. I won’t recommend Willy Boskovsky’s versions of this work at all – they just don’t cut enough substance to be considered: weak execution, half-hearted and some really deceitful performances (serious skimping on repeat notes etc), especially on the EMI label with the Wiener Johann Strauss. On the other hand, Fritz Reiner’s interpretation with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (although guilty of being lazy like Boskovsky), is a joy to listen to.

(2) Bei uns Z’Haus (“At Home”) op. 361

wien 1873

This is another 1873 work by Strauss and written to commemorate Vienna hosting the Weltausstellung (“World Exposition”) from 1 May to 2 November 1873.

Schwarzer_Freitag_Wien_1873

(waltzes doesn’t sound so good in this inclement financial weather…)

 Friedrich_Grätz_-_Schluß_der_Ausstellung

Struck by various supervening events preventing the Expo from being a success – the Vienna Stock Market crash with the ensuing economic crisis, heavy rains, a cholera outbreak – it was quite remarkable that only 7,25 million visitors out of the projected 20 million turned up.

Nonetheless, Strauss was unperturbed by these events and wrote another delectable choral waltz. Like I’ve illustrated in the previous part of the same volume, a choral waltz by Strauss usually had a lengthy Introduction, followed by four or five two-part waltzes and a finale without a Coda.

Bei uns Z’Haus is a very relaxed work, though not short on some Viennese merriment. The sonorous Introduction is quite masterful, as is the overall structure of the waltz. What you’d get is a finely-balanced waltz – an ingredient severely lacking in Strauss’ early waltzes which tend to be overly brutal in its panache. Towards the end, Strauss slows things down a lot by deliberately playing the last waltz part in a contemplative mood. Then, he steals the last laugh when normal waltz tempo resumes and accelerates towards the end to a brilliant conclusion.

Willy Boskovsky will enchant you with his rendition with the Vienna Philharmonic sans the male chorus part. I got this recording on Decca Records.

Excellent memories listening to this waltz, too, despite its less-salubrious backdrop.

(3) Wo die Zitronen blüh’n (“Where the Lemons Blossom”) op. 364

lemon trees

This waltz is actually a perfect illustration of Strauss’ attempts at diversifying his waltz output. This time, he wrote only three two-part waltzes, as compared to his earliest five.

Featuring another pretty long Introduction of pastoral nature, this work is rather sedate. Again, this work is not entirely devoid of Viennese cheekiness  – Waltz 2B is one of Strauss’ loveliest tunes in a long while since Wiener Blut. In the meantime, he was more focused on his operetta career and hardly penned any meaningful waltzes, save for the compelling Karnevalsbilder (“Carnival Scenes”) waltz op. 357 which was itself also primarily made up of themes from his second operetta, Karneval in Rom (“Carnival in Rome”).

I don’t quite know what to make of this work as a whole, though – during my first hearing of this waltz in 1996, I must admit that I quite disliked it. Over time, though, I discovered that it has a certain magnetism to it – its flowing plaintive melodies is a real treat.

(4) Du und du (“You and You”) op. 367

die fledermaus

Strauss’ third operetta contains such a wealth of little gems – you know, those small polka motifs and quasi-waltz movements that stretched out like a golden chain from start to finish. Act 2 contains the finest tunes that are enough to fill many more pages of arranged works – but Strauss shrewdly added the waltz jewel – the climax at the ball (Act 2’s: “Genug, damit genug!”) as the basis of his new waltz, ‘Du und du’.

Listen out as well for Strauss’ treatment of Adele’s ‘Laughing Song’ or “Mein Herr Marquis” in Waltz 2B.

As for the selection of recordings available to you, there are, strangely, not much to choose from. Between your regular Naxos option and Willy Boskovsky’s version with the Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester, you should pick one that suits your mood. As usual, Boskovsky’s lazy style doesn’t normally appeal to me and his liberal deletion of a small section of the waltz ending doesn’t sit well.

However, if I were you, I’d just buy myself the fabulous EMI recording of the entire operetta with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and other stellar names, backed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus directed by Herbert von Karajan. Kick back on a sultry Sunday afternoon and just chill.

die fldermas cd   

(5) Cagliostro-Walzer (“Cagliostro-waltz”) op. 370

cagliostro

I’ll be blunt here – this work would hardly make the list, but for the capricious Waltz 1A and the lyrical Waltz 2. If you ask me, Waltz 3A and 3B are some of the best rubbish that Strauss ever wrote – even his nephew, the lesser known Johann Strauss III wrote some better examples than those waltz parts. In a bare ratio of 2:1, this waltz makes the cut.

This work continues with the Strauss format of three-part waltzes. Melodies from his operetta ‘Cagliostro in Wien’ literally writes itself into this waltz. 

Oh, yes – the fleetingly lovely Waltz 1A reminds you why Johann is the Waltz King. The ending though, is nothing to really shout about. I rarely play this piece on the piano as well, despite being labelled as a famous work worthy of being published in piano books featuring Strauss’ music.

Since recordings of this waltz is as rare as a double rainbow, there’s the obvious choice – Michael Dittrich conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava.

(6) 0 schöner Mai (“Oh Lovely May!”) op. 375

Prinz Methusalem

Johann Strauss II was an equally astute businessman as he was a composer – piano editions of various independently-published works featuring music drawn from his operettas ensure that he gets a further cut from his stage works, the period of composition of which would occupy him for a reasonably long time so as to preclude other financially-viable activities. We’d be starting to see a pattern here that he’d be setting for the rest of his life – an operetta gets staged, then some polkas and a waltz or two featuring melodies from this operetta would be conceived; and then followed by a work not related to the theatre, usually a grand master waltz, maybe two in a row. The latter type is rare and often are quite delightful as Strauss grew older although his creative abilities appear undiminished.

This waltz came from his stage work, Prinz Methusalem and does have a seductive Waltz 1A which reminded me as to why loved Johann Strauss’s music in the first place – the hesitant flowering of the waltz section and the gradual amalgamation with the other waltz sections appear seamless. Obviously there are Strauss waltzes that lack this characteristic which I won’t bother to mention here.

Listen out too for the exciting finale – very catchy and vivacious.

You won’t go wrong with Robert Stolz leading a very fine Berlin Symphony Orchestra on the BMG recording (Wiener Musik vol. 7) in a rendition of this waltz.

(7) In’s Centrum! (“Bullseye”) Walzer op. 387

in's centrum walzer

This is another Strauss work which I’ve yet to really embrace wholeheartedly although I do admire it for its inherent artistic qualities. The first is the opening snare drumroll and timpani ‘shot’ which simulates shooting of rifles.

The work is also infused with some influence of the ländler, most likely to evoke and enhance the rustic Austrian feel of the waltz. While Waltz 1A and B are just so-so, Waltz 3A would definitely catch you by surprise – members of the orchestra calling out “Eins! Zwei! Drei! In’s Centrum! Hurrah!”. I do love Waltz 3A – it’s another very best of Strauss’ inspirations, full of cheery spirits.

I’ve listened to an online version of this work with a running time of 9+ minutes and I doubt that it belonged to Johannes Wildner and his ponderous recording for Naxos which clocks in at over 10 minutes. I’d prefer the shorter version for its sleek execution and vivid sense of purpose.

(8) Rosen aus dem Süden (“Roses from the South”) Walzer, op. 388

das spitzentuch der konigin

This beguiling melodies of this waltz was also coddled together by Johann Strauss from his operetta, Das Spitzentuch der Königin (“The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief”). (The overture to this operetta is superb, by the way, although I haven’t heard the whole operetta before.)

The result is the exquisite op. 388 waltz which has, quite fittingly, outlasted its parent stage work in terms of popularity. In fact, one wouldn’t imagine that this piece was once a hotch-potch of melodies meant for the theatre – in fact, it could well stand out on its own very well as each waltz structure was well-conceived and thought out.

red roses

Starting from the brooding Introduction, with its moments of grandeur and elegance to the pensive Waltz 1A and the Waltz 1B. In between are the alternating rhythms of Waltz 2A and the lyrical grace of Waltz 3. The real action starts with Waltz 4A and the climax in Waltz 4B, though. But the composer’s best finishing touch comes with the sparkling conclusion – the joyous climax and the strong chords at the end.

I’d favour the Wiener Volksoper Orchester version with Peter Falk conducting over all other versions. There was this recording by Franz-Welser Möst with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the EMI label which is also worth seeking out.   

(9) Nordseebilder (“North Sea Pictures”) Walzer op. 390

nordseebilder

Ok, we’re almost wrapping things up here.

This is one of the best seascape works I’ve ever listened to in the classical repertoire. Who could imagine that a waltz could so evocatively portray the gentle sea breeze and violent seastorms in one compact work?

Compare this work with Strauss’ earlier Reiseabenteuer (“Travel Adventures”) op. 227 and you’d note that the mature handling of the seastorm Coda in the latter work illustrates how Strauss could easily transition from being a dance music composer to a writing a good tone poem. Sadly, he didn’t think he had it in him.

You should seek out Willy Boskovsky’s dramatic interpretation of this waltz with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Decca Records. Simply lovely.

I’m not so enthusiastic with Naxos’ offering – it’s just loud and is played very fast indeed for no good reason –  so exercise some caution there.

(10) Myrthenblüthen (“Myrtle Blossoms”) op. 395

myrtle-flower

The final waltz in this volume is a beautiful choral waltz which is perhaps one of the best Strauss penned.

We had began this volume with a waltz which Strauss dedicated to a member of the Habsburg dynasty and we shall end too with a similar dedication – this time to the marriage of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and Princess Stefanie of Belgium.

Rudolf and Stefanie

As a waltz befitting a member of the royalty, Strauss had been careful of imbuing this piece with too much Viennese gaiety – in fact most of the tunes are rather contemplative, but for the exciting last waltz section which lets loose all previous inhibitions. There are moments in the work which were quite dragging in tempo but overall, there’s little not to like about this masterpiece.

Johannes Wildner is quite ok in his interpretation here on the Naxos label although there is also another interpretation which I  had listened before online and clocks in at 8 minutes and a half which is more vibrant and engaging. The details of the performer, however, had not been disclosed.

 

(volume 4 to follow) 

     

      

 

         

 

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