, February 2011
This is a very well-chosen budget-priced selection of “The Great Waltzes”. Indeed, almost all other compilation albums of this type would drive me to distraction with obvious items omitted; this is one ‘hits’ collection which did not make me pull out a pad and paper and begin plotting out my own list of “great waltzes”. To be honest, I requested to review this set partly in anticipation of the frustrating, geeky, but curiously enjoyable hours I would waste deciding what would make the cut on my own “Great Waltzes” disc and how much music would fit on each disc.
But that did not happen. Naxos has really chosen an intelligent menu of twenty waltzes for this two-disc set, and programmed them wisely. The creators have astutely limited the amount of Johann Strauss present to give a more diverse picture, and also because a set of “Great Strauss Waltzes” would run to five or six discs. I can only really think of two waltzes I would put on a “twenty best” list which are not here: Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Maurice Ravel’s genre-busting La valse.
Lehár’s Gold and Silver leads off; we’ve got waltzes from three Tchaikovsky ballets, his Serenade for Strings, and Eugene Onegin; Johann Strauss makes five appearances; Aram Khachaturian gets to put a word in; and everything is capped off by the first waltz sequence from Der Rosenkavalier, by the other Strauss, Richard. There are also three “one hit wonder” composers: Adolphe Adam’s Giselle is honored, as is Iosif Ivanovici’s Danube Waves, and Émile Waldteufel’s lovely Les patineurs which is joined, surprisingly, by three considerably less famous Waldteufel tunes. The obscurities, it turns out, are just as enjoyable, although their big tunes perhaps slip a little more easily out of the memory. I found them a pleasant surprise.
As for the performances: anybody familiar with Marco Polo’s enormous discography of Viennese dance music will know roughly what to expect. They are good, and very danceable, but not world-class by any means in the departments of glamour, sparkle, or personality. All but four of the selections feature the Slovak Philharmonic, the Slovak State Philharmonic, the Slovak Radio Symphony, and the (Slovakian) Strauss Festival Orchestra, ensembles which, along with the Slovak Sinfonietta, my father calls collectively the “Bratislava Kitchen Ensemble.” It’s unfair because they most certainly are not playing in a kitchen, but they are not the best ensembles ever to tackle this music, the conductors were sometimes poor (Alfred Walter was frankly dire), the engineers who recorded them did not always do a flattering job, and the original releases sometimes had a faint air of desperation about them. “Johann Strauss’ Most Famous Waltzes”, from the early 1990s, optimistically changed conductor Ondrej Lenárd’s first name to André.
The shortcomings are especially obvious on CD 1, tracks 2&ndash'4, three waltzes which really emphasize the French horn (Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” Strauss’ Blue Danube, Waldteufel’s Les patineurs). The Slovak horns of three different orchestras present these main tunes in typically wobbly fashion deep in the muddy slosh of the acoustics, making these the most pedestrian performances in the set.
On the other hand, all of the works are paced well—perfect, as I noted, for actually dancing. And there are genuinely good performances here: Tales from the Vienna Woods is well-done by Ondrej Lenárd (sans zither, though), Andrew Mogrelia’s expertise in ballet makes the extract from Sleeping Beauty a delight, and the two Lehár pieces are very well done. I do regret to report, though, that Strauss’s humongous, indeed symphony-sized introduction to Wine, Women, and Song has been cut out.
One more regret, and it is a major one: the first run of discs released, including my review copy, accidentally omitted Ivanovici’s Danube Waves, instead substituting a re-run Lehár’s Gold and Silver. I have notified Naxos and they have taken immediate action; all digital and downloadable copies contain the right files, and subsequent printings of the discs will be corrected. That first batch, though, might still be on shelves. Digression: In the mid-1990s, I picked up a two-cassette pack of Johann Strauss hits and discovered that, through a printing error, the “Treasure Waltz” was included no fewer than three times!
This is a good introductory set for those newcomers who want a waltz fix. It is a very good, cheap album for people learning to waltz who want some background music for their lessons. As an introduction to specific composers or styles, though, The Great Waltzes falls short. If you want two discs to sum up the spirit of Vienna, for example, find the two “Carlos Kleiber conducts Strauss” discs recorded at the 1989 and 1992 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concerts, the best Strauss programs I know. Naxos Historical has an excellent “Lehár Conducts Lehár” CD with many of that composer’s classic waltzes and overtures. In March of this year, I gave a delighted review to a Johann Strauss Society CD of music by Iosif Ivanovici, which proved that “Danube Waves” is just the beginning of his marvelous output.
As one-stop shopping for the waltz novice, though, this is a handy, well-curated selection. It is also a useful survey of Marco Polo’s vast dance music collection. If Naxos ever wants a two-disc set of the forgotten Viennese masterworks, I hope they will contact me. I know where a few of the best treasures are hidden: the utterly ingenious Ritter Pasman Waltz on Johann Strauss Edition Volume 26, the indeed droll Drollery Polka one volume later, the Seid Umschlungen, Millionen waltz (dedicated to Brahms) on Volume 19, Franz von Suppé’s frantic little Tantalusqualen overture, or the two waltzes Karel Komzák dedicated to various girls of his acquaintance. If you like what you hear on The Great Waltzes, there’s an impressively huge body of work waiting to be discovered out there. And if you really are just discovering the joy of the waltz, I envy you for the delights you are about to encounter!