We hear from the purists, naturally, that Johann Strauss (and family) composed for small dance bands. And it is of interest to hear recreations of those small ensemble performances, in the Schoenberg transcriptions recorded on disc from groups including the Boston ensemble. Some thoughts here on Strauss in general and Die Fledermaus in particular as an exemplar. I like my Strauss larger, friendly, romantic, voluptuous.
While it’s true Strauss was authentically performed in small ensembles, some of us still love that big sound, the Neujahrskonzert panache. The big sound, the drama and melodrama, “life as a waltz,” as I recall Walter Cronkite saying in his introduction to the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert in his final years on PBS.
The big sound always comes back to Vienna, and Karajan in 1987 is the starting point. On record at least, for those of us never fortunate enough to have gone to one of those New Years Eve fests. And by citing ’87, no offense meant to the memory of Willi Boskovsky who lead those sessions for so many years. And “lead” them by not really leading them, because the band could play these works by heart. Which — as a critic — makes listening to recordings of Strauss so interesting, and challenging. A work that needs no conductor ?
The ’87 New Years concert is one of HvK’s last recordings, and it is a monument. It is grand, a remembrance perhaps of a previous era. Die Fledermaus, the opening selection, is treated dramatically. Not a pastiche but rather a piece of glimmering art. Put aside (for instance) Barbirolli’s joyous account with the Hallé, and you would hear two different pieces of music. Barbirolli is jumpy and rhythmic. Karajan is sculpting a little piece of art, happy and tingling with anticipation. Glorious John is all exhuberation. Karajan wants you to linger, to waltz. The dance is the thing. It’s a lapse back to Hapsburgian times.
But then again Strauss also gets a bit more unleashed in his polkas and short pieces, as opposed to the long form waltzes. The overall interpretation of Strauss is reflected here as well. Karajan’s Unter Donner und Blitzen (Under Thunder and Lightening) from the ’87 concert is a subdued affair. Though watching the video of the performance — with the orchestra in such rapt attention — draws attention away from the lackluster performance. Contrast with Willi Boskovsky on Decca, from the 1960s, and you are speaking of apples and oranges. The VPO does not, really, need a conductor to play Strauss. Donner und Blitzen explode joyously here, bouncing along in the musical joke that the little piece really is. The same can be said for the Boskovsky “led” performances of Bahn Frei, Champagne Polka, the marches, and so on. Karajan’s touch is entirely more suited for the longer form works, the overtures and longer waltzes.
On another celebrated DGG disc, Fricsay leads the RSO Berlin in works including Die Fledermaus. While the sound on my hersteller LP is richer and more vivid than the 1987 Karajan digital pressing, the performance is off kilter. Fricsay is halfway between Karajan (romantic dramaticism) and Barbirolli (pastiche). Fricsay finds his best fit in this LP with the shorter pieces. Eljen a Magyar is a piece of perfect work here, more polished than Boskovsky and certainly with more vivid sound.
Another contender is Klemperer, with the Philharmonia from his album of Strauss and Weill. On a first press Angel album (triangle stamp, black ring) the sound is stunning, perhaps the best of the lot I’ve surveyed. Where Karajan is consciously dramatic and romantic, and Barbirolli is consciously jolly, and Boskovsky is consciously non-conscious (allowing the orchestra to ride for its own trail), Klemperer perhaps finds the tract between all of these. There is the distinct trance of waltzing rhythm, but also an undeniable cutting edge of irony — the second subjects to all those jaunty
themes — what Cronkite meant when he said life is a waltz. There is a reason Klemperer paired Strauss with Weill. Both were very modern, in their own ways. The waltz under Klemperer is not just a performance, or a performance piece. It is a representation of life. Unforced, by momentous turns happy and sad, reflective, with its own unforced momentum — the thing so important in Strauss.
And boy does it sound good.
The last entry is Karajan, again (he recorded this piece probably a dozen times!), in quadraphonic on EMI/Angel with Berlin. It is even more of a staid and dramatised performance than the ’87 VPO live performance, but the vividness of the sound is stunning. Cellos pop as though right in front of your seat; violins coast with immediate gleen; it is a wonder to behold. The performances glistens, but lacks the joy of Barbirolli or the rhythmic bounce of Fricsay. Like so much of what HvK created, though, it is a gem. In four channel sound, it glistens and gleams.