Like a Thousand Candles in Crystal Chandeliers
The MHS Review 404, VOL. 12, NO.8• 1988
click on the cover to return to the table of contents
Somewhere along the line, even as the gilt began to fade on those mirrored ballrooms that kept Vienna waltzing until the turn of the century, the world outside Austria became a wallflower content to listen to Strauss waltzes rather than dance to them. Perhaps it was a kind of fate that the life of Johann Strauss, Jr. terminated just as the 19th century made its exit from the stage of history.
Of the thousands of waltzes with romantic melodies supplied to the dance orchestras of Europe a hundred years ago, few rivaled the genuine works of music in waltz form composed by the members of the Strauss family. There was Johann I and his sons Eduard and Johann II and there was Eduard's son Johann III. Among them they composed some 500 waltzes, 200 of them alone by Johann II. Half a dozen of the most delightful of those can be heard on this release.
Why do these waltzes survive to delight our jaded late 20th-century ears, when so many of the others are consigned to the scrap heap of the past? For one thing, though every one of them abounds in melody, they are always more than mere aggregations of tunes. Listen to those elegant introductions: the opening passages of ''Tales from the Vienna Woods," with the birdcalls on the woodwinds, the zither introducing a kind of dreamy country dance. Then comes the development, with the suggestion of sunlight stippling the ground through rustling trees, the feeling of nature that almost anticipates the tone poems of the Impressionists. Indeed, the entire work is a kind of tone poem in waltz time, culminating in a wistful, nostalgic, rustic little coda.
"Roses from the South" seems to float in on breezes laden with sweet scents from the Mediterranean; "Emperor
Waltz" brings up the curtain with a march that evokes the nobility of a regal ceremony in some vast ballroom where all is white and gold and right with the world; "The Blue Danube" is the only Danube where the waters are really blue, not brown (as they are in drab reality), and you can hear them flow, sparkling as they float by the "City of Dreams."
You can kill a Strauss waltz by interpreting it too strictly or too flaccidly, with too military an oompah-beat or too much sugar from the string section, by cutting it down or supplying a cheap substitute for the complex, dashing original orchestration. In order to achieve the proper balance among the grace of the dance, the color of orchestral sound, the propulsive movement, the swaying rhythms, and the formal splendor of a piece laid out like a musical garden, just the right orchestra with just the right, seasoned conductor at the helm is required.
Such are the ingredients present in this six-pack of vivid, imperishable waltzes from the pen of Johann Strauss, Jr. For the Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper, the playing of a Strauss waltz is second nature, and the conductor has proved himself in the front rank of Viennese interpreters in countless concert appearances as well as through his recordings of waltzes. The sound, too, matters in a program of Strauss music: it should be full and spacious, and it should shine like the aural equivalent of a thousand candles gleaming in crystal chandeliers. That it does on this recording.
Review of SIX FAMOUS WALTZES BY JOHANN STRAUSS, JR. Page 61