Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year Swallows from Austria

New Year, a fresh start, out with the old and in with new, etc, but however disinclined I might feel beforehand I always seem to end up listening to and/or watching the world-famous New Year's Day Concert from Vienna where, year in and year out, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra does what it does so well and delights us with the music of various Strausses (though not usually Richard), plus a smattering of non-Strausses. Tomorrow it's Mariss Jansons conducting and the non-Strausses are Carl Maria Ziehrer, Joseph Hellmesberger, the Dane Hans Christian Lumbye and, unusually, Tchaikovsky (a bit of Sleeping Beauty).

Johann Strauss the Younger is, of course, always the star composer, but my ears always prick up when I hear something by his brother, Josef. Johann famously said of his slightly younger brother, "Pepi [his family nickname] is the more gifted of us two; I am merely the more popular." Josef is, like Johann, a fine tunesmith but his harmonic palette is richer than his brother's and the range of feeling is wider too. He was, by all accounts, quite a melancholy man and this strain in his character can be heard from time to time in his works. Tomorrow the Vienna Phil will be giving us three polkas, namely the Jockey Polka, Kunstler-Gruss and Feuerfest, plus the polka-mazurka Brennende Liebe and one of his most famous pieces, the waltz Delirien.

Some of the most enchanting music from the Strauss Family comes in the slow introductions to their pieces and this is especially the case with Josef. They can be quite surprising on first hearing. Take Delirien, for example. Yes, it soon turns into a waltz sequence of the kind any Viennese concert goer (or radio listener) would instantly recognise as being a typical example of a Strauss Family tunefest, full of festive amiability, but it begins with what sounds remarkably like a Wagnerian tone-poem in miniature - a very dramatic piece of writing which wouldn't sound out of place in the Ring, with its stormy tremolo string writing and vivid lightning flashes of wind colour

This highly winning blend of depth (in the introductions) and lightness (in the waltz sequences) can also be heard in another of Josef's most performed pieces, the waltz Spharenklange (Music of the Spheres), whose opening harmonies and scoring recall Wagner's Lohengrin before drifting through various keys towards a romantic melody that might have been by Richard Strauss at his lushest. This tune, made light, becomes the main tune of the genial waltz sequence that follows. I have to admit, as with Delirien, that it's almost a shame that the waltz sequence has to begin at all, so bewitching is this introductory music. If I'm confessing the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I'd add that part of me wishes that Josef had ignored the waltz sequences altogether and just kept on in the vein of his introductions right through to the end.

Even so light-heated a waltz as Dorfschwalben aus Osterreich (Village Swallows from Austria), with its chirruping bird noises, has a lovely little pastoral introduction where the clarinet sings a sweet, slightly wistful tune. Another 'introduction to the waltz' to savour is Studentenraume (Student Rooms), which has a warmth and a beguiling tune for the flute that I suspect you will find particularly endearing, and please check out the beautiful introductions to the Wiegenlieder (Cradle Songs) and Musen-Klange (Music for the Muses) waltzes . All last for a short time, then give birth to sequences of the expected kind.

Though only about half as prolific as his more famous brother, he still penned hundreds of pieces and routine inevitably occasionally takes over. Still, the more works I hear by Josef Strauss the higher the opinion I have of him. You may have heard the adorable polka-mazurka Die Libelle (The Dragonfly), the lilting tunefulness of its main melody, aided and abetted by some delicious scoring, making it one of his gems. Other outstanding examples of his art are the Petitionen (Petition) waltz, which keeps its high standards up throughout, as does the Landler-style Stiefmutterchen (Pansy) polka-mazurka.

So here's to Josef Strauss and 2012!
Happy New Year!

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