, January 2011
The “looking backward” elements of the music of Johann Strauss Sr actually glance only a short time into the past, to Austrian Ländler and the works of Strauss’ one-time boss and later competitor, Joseph Lanner. Strauss took the rather foursquare dance music of Lanner, and his fairly straightforward joining together of folk tunes into extended sequences, and created works that were through-composed, tailored to the taste of the Viennese public, and frequently based on popular operatic tunes—the pop music of Strauss’ time. Strauss’ sons, Johann Jr and Josef, would later look back at their father’s approach to music and develop it much further, creating genuinely symphonic works and (especially in Josef’s case) frequently ones with a depth of emotion and bittersweet sound that Johann Sr never attained or, for that matter, sought. All is pleasantry, lilt and easy flow in Strauss Sr ’s music, as is abundantly demonstrated in the excellent ongoing Marco Polo series devoted to it. The 17th volume features nine works from 1843 and 1844, all played with great style and sensitivity by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack. This 35-member orchestra and this conductor have made this type of music a specialty, and the delicacy and bounce of Strauss Sr ’s works come through clearly from start to finish. Volume 17 is interesting for its inclusion of four quadrilles: Volksgarten-Quadrille, Redoute-Quadrille, Orpheus-Quadrille and Fest-Quadrille. The quadrille is very formulaic, the music looping back on itself repeatedly and staying in pretty much the same tempo throughout. This makes quadrilles eminently danceable but generally less interesting to hear than waltzes and polkas. There is only one polka on this CD—Salon-Polka—and it is a fine one, quick and witty. There are three waltzes, of which Nur Leben! (“Just Live!”) and Frohsinns-Salven (“Salvos of Gaiety”) are fairly straightforward, while Aurora-Festklänge (“Aurora’s Festive Sounds”) is more interesting, with an unusual opening that builds to a set of particularly well-constructed dance tunes. The last item here is Waldfräuleins Hochzeits-Tänze (“Forest Maiden’s Wedding Dances”), created by Strauss based on a once-popular romantic fairy tale. Contemporary reviews of Strauss Sr ’s concerts are repetitious in their fulsome praise of his music and conducting, noting again and again how well his works were received and how frequently the audiences insisted on encores. Listening to this music more than a century and a half later, it is still possible to understand why Strauss was, in his time, the equivalent of modern pop-music stars: he gave the audience exactly what it wanted, producing works of style and beauty that, even today, it is difficult to hear without wishing to get dressed for an old-fashioned ball and go dancing.