Johann Strauss II–Best waltzes and performers (vol. 4, part 2)

Johann Strauss Museum (Wien / Vienna – December 13, 2019) – an original Arthur Oon Yong Hong (“AtelierArturYH”) image. (All pictures taken in the Johann Strauss Apartment Museum, Madame Tussauds Wien, Schloss Schönbrunn Vienna within this post belong to AtelierArturYH)

Finally! After 7 years, the final volume in Johann Strauss’ best waltzes has come to be. Imagine – the last volume was in 2013 which was a damn freaking long time ago. You can still access volume 4, part 1 here.

I also finally visited Vienna in December 2019. How could I write about the ‘laughing genius of Vienna’ without ever having visited the city where he lived and breathed waltzes and polkas?

Madame Tussauds Vienna – I’m guessing Johann Strauss is about 170cm tall if this is an approximate replica of the real-life persona. I mean, I have to still bend over to be able to take a wefie with him (and I’m only 176cm short). Still, for a 19th-century pop idol, he’s the approximate Justin Bieber of the day in light music and operetta. Herbert von Karajan stands proudly on the podium behind him. Both are (or were) truly handsome.
Hmm, I prefer this angle better. Ready to strike up the band. “Heut spielt der Strauss!” The different sort of genius, Albert Einstein could be seen in the background looking sullen.

Obviously today, these oom-pa-pa dances are no longer trending and the heydays of the Strauss family are a thing of the past – but thank goodness I made that trip last year shortly before the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic struck the world. That reinforced my self-reminder that if I dreamt of doing something in my bucket list or hobby to-do’s, then let that day be today and not tomorrow, because tomorrow will become tomorrow and so on…you get what I mean.

Since this is the last volume where I’d be reviewing Strauss’ most famous waltzes, let’s start this segment with me sharing some pics of my pilgrimage to the Strauss apartment (Johann Strauss Wohnung) in Praterstrasse, Leopoldstadt where he lived in the mid-1860s. It’s not to be confused with this museum – which is about the entire Strauss family.

Looking up at the first floor – above the Cafe 3/4 time (Takt) with 4 Austrian flags to indicate a historic location within Vienna. An overhanging plaque briefly explains that the unofficial Austrian national anthem An der schönenblauen Donau was composed by Johann Strauss II here in 1867.

You could easily reach there by the U-bahn at the Nestroyplatz station. The museum isn’t far and you could walk there. Enter the museum by the left side of the 3/4 Takt Cafe. I’m not familiar with the construction of European apartment blocks and got stuck trying to go up. Ring the doorbell before gaining entry. It would be locked especially if you’re among the first few visitors in the morning. The ornate staircase and bits of falling masonry reminded me of the age of the place – it is older than anything Malaysia ever has in its urban areas, except for the A Famosa in Malacca.

Some history about the apartment

The caretaker of the museum was rather curt and insisted on speaking only German. “Das ist ja ausgezeichnet!” Nevermind – just ask if he speaks English – “Sprechen sie Englisch?” and he’d murmur a polite “Bitte sehr”. Yeah, I know he’s an ok guy, just typical Viennese dry behavior which you’d get used to. Ooh, and the floor boards! They creak terribly at every step. It feels like you cannot even tiptoe there.

For some strange reason, I quite like this bust. The moustache and beard style reminds me that this is a depiction of Strauss at the age where he enjoyed the peak of his creative powers.

You could make it worth your time and money by opting to buy the Vienna Pass so you get to go in free. No, this is not a sponsored post and so I won’t add any links here nor compare it with the Vienna City Card (which was my initial selection but upon comparing both, the Pass got my approval due to my own travel itinerary and not because the City Card is inferior in any way.)

The apartment is divided into 4 or 5 distinctive sections, each documenting a period of Strauss’ life and some of his most famous works.

1853 – 5 years after Strauss’ debut at the Dommayer’s Casino. The actual location is still there but I didn’t check it out.
Here, this should give you some idea on how the rooms are divided. Exhibits are pegged to the walls and the place was brightly lit. My hands (and heart) were excited, hence it seems like I took these pictures with a solar calculator
Strauss conducting from the violin was not unusual – apparently, this was the Vorgeiger style popularized by Johann Strauss I and carried on through to Willi Boskovsky.
Johann Strauss II and his family (accurately speaking, the women in his life)
Caricatures of Johann Strauss. Most seem to emphasize the whiskery beard and the sharp eyebrows.
Looks old but still gold. 2 talented brothers teaming up to create a masterpiece
Ok, one final picture before we hit the main content. I love this picture the most – as it says, Strauss was an avid tarot card player (Tarock – not sure which version was played, i.e. Tapp Tarock or Illustrated Tarock)

During the coronavirus outbreak, I’m not 100% certain if the museum is open for visit but if you’ve time to spare, do check out this quaint and well-maintained museum. The above pictures are just a woefully short summary of the actual exhibits on display. Expect to spend at least an hour, taking pictures or reading up more on the Waltz King and his life story.

I’ve now compiled the following waltzes which round up Strauss’ 400-something opus list. Enjoy the selection! After that, I also draw up a quick summary of waltzes that I’ve, in my silliest moments, missed out on. YouTube and Spotify are indeed wonderful creations for those who love music.

Playing cards box depicting Strauss, his third wife Adele (right) and daughter (left)

(1) Sinnen und Minnen (“Reverie and Loving”) – op. 435. Dang, how did I miss this cheerful little postcard earlier? Its cheeky Waltz 1A is so charming that at first listen in 2008, I thought that this was one of the better waltzes that I’ve heard that year, besides In’s Zentrum (op. 378) and ‘Funf Paragraphe aus dem Walzer-Codex’ (op. 105). The middle waltz parts are consistent – not overtly humdrum and just lent a nice balance to the rest of the piece. The absence of a lengthy Coda reprising earlier themes meant that the breezy Waltz 1A dances in very quickly and ends on a resounding flourish. Recordings: As far as I know, Alfred Walter’s interpretation with the Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice) on the Johann Strauss Complete Edition vol. 24 is the only known recording but it’s splendid enough.

Gloriette of the Schönbrunn Palace. I read that it was destroyed during World War 2. How sad that one could find the heart to ruin these astounding architectures.  
Schloss Schönbrunn atop the small hill behind the main palace complex. In the winter after it snowed, the roads are frozen solid into ice which you have to carefully make your way up. But what a wonderful sight that lovely and dear Vienna is! The Stephansdom (Steffl) stands proudly head and shoulders above all other buildings at a distance but you could see how vast Vienna had become.

(2) Groß-Wien (“Great Vienna”) – op. 440. I became acquainted with this waltz in 1999. It came out in the 100 Best Works of Johann Strauss series run by Naxos. Originally conceived as a choral waltz, it follows the structure of similar works such as ‘Wein, Weib und Gesang’ (op. 333), ‘Neu-Wien’ (op. 342), ‘Bei uns z’Haus’ (op. 361) and Myrthenblüten (op. 395) where a somewhat lengthy introduction precedes a four two-part waltz chain which ends without a Coda. Yes, it finishes without the Waltz 1A again. That’s how innovative Johann Strauss II was in his treatment of the waltz genre. I’d rank this opus 440 as one of the truly last great waltzes of his time, simply because there is no evidence that Strauss had his inspiration for creations in 3/4 time diminished. Waltz 2A and 2B stood out for me whereas Waltz 4A had a breezy quiet quality like only a couple dancing in an empty ballroom to the soft strains of this cooling melody. Recordings: You have 2 choices to hear out this great waltz – the usual Naxos interpretation (of course, where else) and a very rare but special recording by Eduard Strauss leading his orchestra in the now near-obsolete ‘The Great Composers and Their Music’ by Marshall-Cavendish (volume 41). I bought quite a number of out-of-print partworks from this site and their service has always been impeccable and professional. (I didn’t receive any remuneration to mention them on this page, so feel free to shop around as you like. You may pick up a couple of real gems along the way, if you’re into old recordings / magazines). The CD also comes with a strong lineup of Strauss favorites that aren’t in mainstream recordings, including Vienna Sweets (op. 307) and Praise of Women polka-mazurka (op. 315) which is the divider piece between the mighty Blue Danube waltz (op. 314) and the awesome Artists’ Life (op. 316) waltzes. The sound quality is slightly wiry but the interpretation was sharper than the Alfred Walter usual relaxed style.

Friedrich Schiller – the famous poet who wrote the ode “An die Freude” (To Joy) made legendary by Ludwig van Beethoven in his 9th Symphony and which contains the phrase ‘Seid Umschlungen Millionen’. (Credits: Original portrait by Gerhard von Kügelgen) – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=153585

(3) Seid umschlungen, Millionen (“Be Embraced, Millions!”) – op. 443. I first savored this masterwork in 1996 when I found it on a CD as a pair of hitherto unheard works with Wiener Bonbons (op. 307) in an album of Wiener Volksoper Orchester interpretation of the usual Strauss’ waltzes and polkas (like Artists’ Life and Morning Papers waltzes). I can’t express how much I loved the Wiener Bonbons because I found that CD as a proper godsend but this mature work is nothing like you’ve heard before. It has the grandeur and musical fibre of the Kaiser-Walzer (op. 437) but the exuberance of its younger cousins. We can start with the masterful Introduction – a stately first section punctuated by a more exciting second. The other waltz sections (Waltzes 1A, 2A, 3A and B that follow would surely delight you too – the irresistible Waltz 4A always made me smile. Recordings: You may imagine that my first choice would the the Volksoper / Alfred Scholz recordings. Not this time – I’ve found a rather more worthy contemporary. You would be thoroughly entertained by an unusual choral rendition featuring the Wiener Symphoniker backed by the Wiener Jugendchor and led by Alois Melichar (in a CD featuring Anton Paulik’s gems). The pacing and rhythm throughout is simply delectable. However, if the choral rendition is not your cup of kaffee mit schlag, then there are the alternatives – Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic in the 2001 Neujahrskonzert. Another one would be the Volksoper recordings – the very one clocking in at approximately 10 plus minutes is the one that was an early favorite.

(4) Märchen aus dem Orient (“Fairytales from the Orient”) – op. 444. Strauss entertained a fair degree of fascination with Arabian themes, most notably in his first ever operetta, Indigo and the Forty Thieves (Indigo und die vierzig Räuber) premiered in 1871. His earlier Persian March (op. 289) was also descriptively Arabian in feel and execution. As for this late waltz, there is of course an evocative feel of the Thousand and One nights (Waltz 1A definitely) but one suspects that Johann Strauss’ Viennese roots are too strong for him to ignore – in some parts, he stole in quite a few bars of his own Austrian creations. The result is a hotchpotch of melodies that could only be summarized as ‘different’ from that of his other 3/4 time works. In this context, this work stands out because while it doesn’t quite sound Arabic in nature, it does have its own sense of identity and this was important at that time and age where Carl Michael Ziehrer was also pumping out more or less the same repetitious waltz melodies to satiate his own team of adoring Viennese audiences. Odd one, this particular waltz – but strangely enjoyable. And Ziehrer’s works are generally still boring. Recordings: Plenty to choose from, so this means that you don’t have to necessarily go for Naxos’ version nor Robert Stolz’s shortened and uninspired version in his mammoth Wiener Musik series (it’s always either a hit or miss with Robert Stolz – and only his volume 7 of Wiener Musik was consistent enough to be recommended). Ok, long story short – go for Daniel Barenboim’s or Zubin Mehta’s Neujahrskonzert versions (2009 or 2015, whichever you could get your hands on). You might also be entertained with Alfred Eschwé conducting the Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester in the ‘Wiener Bonbons’ album of live recordings. Check that red-colored album out – it’s chockful filled with rare gems like ‘Auf Zum Tanze’ polka (op. 436), ‘Fata Morgana’ polka-mazurka (op. 330), the ‘Eine Nacht in Venedig’ operetta overture, and the masterful ‘Die Publicisten’ waltz (op. 321) with the tasty ‘Wiener Bonbons’ waltz (op. 307). Alfred Eschwé is fast becoming my go-to Johann Strauss interpreter, having first heard his contribution to the massive Johann Strauss Complete Edition (volume 17), then to his recent work with the Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester and watched him conduct live at the Wiener Volksoper in a marvellous production of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ in December 2019.

(5) Hochzeitsreigen (“Wedding Procession”) – op. 453. This regal-sounding waltz was dedicated to a member of the royalty – Princess Marie Luise of Bourbon-Parma. I first heard this work in 2009 and was initially unimpressed. For one, the large repository of Johann Strauss Complete Edition was open to me after I bought a copy of my own. Spoilt for choice, this work was quickly filtered out in favor of other rarities. Later on, I came across the piano version of this work and tried it out. Strangely, being able to re-interpret it to my own liking did it for me – the Waltz 1A has a gentle yet determined quality of its own whereas the other waltz chains that follow form a cohesive unit. Not exactly a waltz that would wow you but if you’re looking for a late 19th-century work near to the end of Strauss’ life where he had developed a distinctive matured style, this one fits the bill nicely. Waltzes like ‘Ich bin dir Gut’ (op. 455) nor ‘Heut’ ist heut’ (op. 471) could sometimes be undone by poor orchestra performance / conductor so perhaps more alternative recordings could put these right. For example, the waltz ‘Gartenlaube’ (op. 461) is quite ok, nothing spectacular either, but I guess the ponderous and lethargic treatment by Christian Pollack didn’t cut it for me to include it here. Recordings: Only one so far as I recall – Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice) led by Alfred Walter.

An illustration showing Clever Gretel from the Brothers Grimm fairytale collection. (Credits: By Walter Crane c1890 – http://whisperingbooks.com/Show_Page/?book=Fairy_Tales_From_The_Brothers_Grimm&story=Clever_Grethel, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91847507)

(6) Klug Gretelein (“Clever Gretel”) – op. 462. Most people would know this fairytale and so I won’t elaborate it here. Far as I know, this waltz exists as a vocal waltz like the earlier classic ‘Voices of Spring’ Frühlingsstimmen (op. 410). The cleverly-conceived work is however, quite repetitious – more so when the main waltz 1A pops out its head at at least 4 sections to say ‘Hi! I’m awesome! Hear me out!’. Yes, it’s attractive – Strauss knew it and unashamedly spammed it. Earlier, his pensive yet sweet Kuss Walzer (op. 400) also had its main waltz 1A repeated every so often. That said, it should not detract you from enjoying its charms and spontaneity. Recordings: Naxos (volume 30) or the vocal version – Jack Rothstein’s delectable version with the Johann Strauss Orchestra in the Vienna Premiere Volume 2 set on the Chandos label. Marilyn Hill Smith provides the vocals here. Both versions are great although the vocal version had some minor embellishments which made it sound rather different from the Naxos version purely for orchestra.

op. 463 derives it melodies chiefly from the operetta Waldmeister. The Overture is a sparkling masterpiece with excellent counterpoint melody.

(7) Trau, schau, wem! (“Beware of whom you trust!”) – op. 463. The Waldmeister operetta contains a wealth of melodies, none more evident than its brilliant overture which is a frequent mainstay in the New Year’s Concerts. The only waltz that was born from the operetta’s tunes contains the main melody in the overture – which you could decipher as a ‘Blue Danube waltz’ in reverse. The overall mood of this work is quite reflective and nowhere near as exuberant as that of Strauss’ earlier pieces. It may seem like a furtive handbrake towards the end of Strauss’ life but such is the general prevalent mood of his final few compositions. When I first heard this in 1999, I’m just ok with it but as I appreciated the sublime Overture, I got to understand this waltz better and recognize it as a tiny sparkle in the long list of Strauss’ waltzes. Recordings: so far, only two. Three, if you count a half-assed attempt so I won’t cover it here. The two are: Naxos and featuring the then lumbering Johannes Wildner (hey, he’s improved his conducting speed a lot. In recent recordings with the Wiener Johann Strauss Orchester, he’s quite an accomplished Strauss interpreter now. Time surely will change things a lot.). Ok, I don’t really like the Naxos version even till now, so I’d go for Robert Stolz’s incomplete but tempo-friendly version with the Berlin Symphoniker Orchester.

(8) An der Elbe (“On the Elbe”) – op. 477. Here we go – the last waltz in the entire list. I’d observed painfully that the last few dozens of Johann Strauss’ works were lacking in élan and verve. If you ask me to specifically listen to ‘Trau, Schau, Wem‘ on a hot tropical day here in the steamy part of Southeast Asia? Forget it! Remember the sharp and smart ‘Die Publicisten‘? Or the quiet yet melancholic optimism of Artists’ Life? Maybe the exquisite Vienna Blood is more up your alley? Those days were long gone before this final masterpiece. Where do I even start in reviewing this work? The Introduction is uneasy, unsettling and somewhat nervy but as it calmed down to the Waltz 1A, you know that it’s truly something special. There is not one weak link in this amazing chain of 4 two-part waltzes. The calmness and lucid memory of Waltz 4A soothed the joyful Waltz 3. The masterful Coda binds all the previous wistful moods together to its last flourish. It was as if this truly dawned on Strauss that – “…ok, this is it – the final waltz ever.” And he summoned all his creative energies and inspiration to create this now-forgotten wonder in 3/4 time. I first appraised this work in 2008 and I know no other fitting finale to Strauss’ reign as the Waltz King as did this work. Look up this waltz and give it a good listen – you will not regret it. Recordings: Fortunately, there is quite a handful of galvanizing recordings available – (1) First up, never ignore Naxos’ contribution! Alfred Walter conducts the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice) as able as he could in this recording which doesn’t disappoint even if he still cut corners and shaved minutes off, but whatever; (2) Matthias Georg Kendlinger leads the K&K Philharmoniker in recordings of rare Strauss family works under the album ‘Unter den Linden‘ which is the title of one of the more inspired waltzes penned by Johann Strauss III (Eduard Strauss’ son who became a somewhat forgotten composer). His style of conducting is somewhat rushed but he was certainly careful to preserve the pensiveness of this waltz. Not bad. (3) Christian Thielemann gave a convincing rendition with the Staatskapelle Dresden in the album ‘Live aus der Semperoper‘. He made sure the overall sounds were warm, thoughtful and that was a treat. Ignore the shortened length of the work, because you have the final option which is (4) Zubin Mehta leading the venerable Wiener Philharmoniker Orchester in the 2015 Neujahrskonzert. This recording clocks in at 9 minutes and 35 seconds which is in perfect tempo as to how this last waltz should be interpreted.

Ok, this is it. I don’t have much business here talking about the Strauss family any longer than I should. Their music have been and always will be a part of my life. I’ve been playing Strauss waltzes on the piano since I was 14 years of age and long may this continue. I’m glad that I completed this undertaking just a week before Johann Strauss II’s birthday on 25 October. Pretty good timing, if I should say so myself.

Before I wrap up, here is a further addendum of recommended waltzes to the earlier list, starting from opus 1 to the last waltz:

Opus 4 ‘Serailtänze’ – An early hidden gem. Waltz 1A right up to Waltz 5B. Richard Edlinger conducts this interpretation on Naxos.

Opus 27 ‘Die Sanguiniker’ – boisterous spirited piece especially fitting for the sanguine ones. Early Strauss work that failed to capture the imagination but hopefully that could change.

Opus 68 ‘Aeols-Töne’ – lovely Waltz 1A, melancholic but melodious.

Opus 94 ‘Rhadamantus-Klänge’ – signs of developing maturity in the young Johann Strauss’ style. The structure was cleverly conceived and the vibrancy was suitably maintained throughout.

Opus 128 ‘Solon-Sprüche’ – a vivacious and stylish work, Waltzes 2A and 2B convinced me to turn this into a featured review. Waltz 1A sounds weird but in a good way. Trust me on this.

Opus 164 ‘Sirenen’ – Maybe not as atmospheric as Waldteufel’s similar Les sirènes, Op.154 but this Strauss waltz contains a wealth of tuneful melodies that you should be able to enjoy.

Opus 177 ‘Juristenball-Tänze’ – While it doesn’t contain a particularly captivating Waltz 1A, the latter half of this Waltz reveals a charming and disarmingly swirling set of well-constructed waltz parts. Go for the Paul Angerer interpretation where he conducts the Vienna Chamber Orchestra in a truly committed performance.

Opus 189 ‘Paroxysmen’ – how on earth did I miss this out earlier? That was really careless of me. From start to finish, this nervous-sounding work tried to replicate the spasms of human body and ending with a gong strike. There are pockets of lovely waltz sections in the middle but overall, a very attractive work.

Opus 204 ‘Vibrationen’ – Another mistake of mind to leave this out earlier. From the minor-sounding and brooding Waltz 1A to the exuberant Waltzes 3 and 4, this is pure Straussian creative genius at its core. Seek this waltz out.

Opus 312 ‘Feenmärchen’ – another big title left out. This waltz immediately precedes the great Blue Danube waltz and overflows with smartly-crafted melodies and also blessed with a somewhat poignant mood which renders it a delight. Seek out the Paul Angerer version with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra – it’s awesome.

Opus 318 ‘Telegramme’ – maybe because it came after the famous Blue Danube waltz op. 314 as well as the great ‘Artists’ Life’ waltz op. 316 that rendered this consummately-composed waltz a forgotten stepchild. Waltz 1A is as good as any that Strauss would write during this creative period of his career and the rest just pulls you in along for the ride. My only contention would be that Waltz 5A was repeated far too often in the Coda that seemed to drag it into the boredom quagmire – but otherwise the rest are good.

Opus 357 ‘Carnevalsbilder’ – like the ‘Tausend und Eine Nacht’ op. 346, this waltz derives its melodies from Strauss’ 2nd operetta ‘Der Carneval in Rom’ which is filled to the brim with sparkling melodies and good spirits. Waltz 2A reminds you of the beautiful overture as well, which you should not miss out on.

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