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John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, November 2010

The Best of Josef STRAUSS (8.556846)
The Best of Carl Michael ZIEHER (8.556848)

I have often looked with curiosity at the various very tempting Marco Polo discs of the Complete Works of composers most of whose music is unknown to me. However choice of individual discs from these sets – twenty-five discs of Josef Strauss and five of Ziehrer at the last count - has seemed like a lottery. Naxos has now solved the problem of which to choose by issuing what are in effect highlights discs from these two series. I had already heard and very much enjoyed a similar disc of music by Lumbye [8.556843], and these continue the same path.

Discs said to contain the best of, say, Bach, Mozart or Beethoven are likely to contain odd movements. Inevitably this can scarcely do justice to the composers’ intentions. In contrast those of music by composers of dance or other light music can represent them at something like their best and give a good overview, even if the precise choice may not correspond to your personal preferences. Both of these discs contain a series of pieces in different genres. Josef Strauss is represented by waltzes, various kinds of polka and a march, and the Ziehrer disc adds two Overtures. Both are generously filled and have the kind of detailed notes that add much to the enjoyment of these pieces, and both are well recorded and well played.

Of the two composers I have no doubt that Josef Strauss is the more interesting and accomplished. Sphärenklänge is an unquestionable masterpiece of its type and none of the other works on this disc is less than enjoyable. Most are indeed much more than that – the composer’s wonderful mixture of poetry and exuberance, and his ability to vary textures and musical character ensures that each piece remains wholly individual. Perhaps it would have been much better to have arranged the order so that waltzes were not immediately followed by other waltzes and polkas by other polkas, but the listener can easily arrange their own preferred sequence. Two points are worth mentioning. Feuerfest! (Fireproof) was written for a party at a company who made iron safes. It is notable for its evocation of the forge hammers, but what we hear on this disc is a very decorous tinkle which is frankly ineffectual. The opening of Deutsche Grüße was the model for Wunderbar in Kiss me Kate. How better indeed to evoke the world of the Viennese waltz.

The disc of music by Carl Michael Ziehrer is a similar mixture, but I must admit to some disappointment with the music itself, which is pleasant enough, but which was never very individual or memorable. It is worth hearing if you are an enthusiast for Viennese dance music, but is scarcely likely to be a priority for anyone else.

Both discs are well recorded and, despite the array of conductors on each, the standard of performance is consistently high. There is no sense of regret that a Viennese group had not been chosen – the rhythms and phrasing are always idiomatic. Naxos have done both composers a real service by issuing these discs. I hope that this will lead some listeners to explore their music further – especially that of Josef Strauss.

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