Conductors of the Vienna Philharmonic have been measured as much by their insights into the lightweight music of the Strauss family--papa Johann and his gifted offspring, Josef and, above all, Johann Jr., "The Waltz King" (1825-99)--as by their interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.
Strike out in Strauss with the Viennese critics and their estimation of your leadership of the symphonic three Bs is likely to suffer accordingly.
This year has been rich in recorded Strauss from the source, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Vienna Philharmonic, custodians of the flame and the harshest critics of all.
Alongside a 12-CD collection of the conductors prominently associated with the core classics and with the VPO in post-World War II years, Deutsche Grammophon has also issued a two-CD package offering largely historical, big-gun performances of works by Johann Jr. and Josef (435 335, mid-price).
Among the earliest treasures are the "Du und Du" waltz, on "Fledermaus" themes, relaxed and elegant, with some exquisitely deft portamentos, recorded by Erich Kleiber in 1929, and a graciously flowing 1934 "Blue Danube" that belies George Szell's tough-guy reputation without diminishing his stature as an orchestral technician.
There are three different versions of that most extraordinarily rich of Junior's creations, the "Emperor" Waltz, led by three major powers of 20th-Century Viennese music-making: Bruno Walter (1937), Wilhelm Furtwangler (1950) and Herbert von Karajan (1987).
Walter's is disappointingly matter of fact, Furtwangler's mellifluous, with just the right degree of anticipation of the second beat (the first \o7 pa\f7 of \o7 oom-pa-pa\f7 ) and a welcome hint of tension in the marching (but in dance shoes) opening theme. Karajan, alone among the three in taking all indicated repeats, shows us how the piece is constructed, and refines the life out of it in the process.
There are also idiomatic Straussian forays by Josef Krips and Willi Boskovsky, inapt weightiness from Karl Bohm and Hans Knappertsbusch, and a trio of come-latelys--Lorin Maazel, Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta--allowing contemporary urban nerves to intrude on the mellow aura of a gilded age.
If one conductor stands out as capturing and projecting the essence of the Strausses' Imperial Vienna--its glamour and verve, its decadence--it is native son Clemens Krauss (1893-1954), like the other old-timers here only a generation or so removed from the composers' own time.
Sample any of the half-dozen examples of Krauss' artistry, recorded between 1929 and 1953, that are included--among them two of Junior's greatest waltzes, "Voices of Spring" and "Austrian Village Swallows"--to experience the insinuating lilt, the raffish hesitations and the dynamic subtleties that mark the authentic style.
Strauss, Krauss and the VPO are also heard in treasurable reissues on the London label (425 990, two mid-priced CDs). The set includes the famous 1950 performance, without spoken dialogue, of "Die Fledermaus," with Hilde Gueden an incomparably fetching, coquettish Rosalinde, Julius Patzak's befuddled, sweet-voiced Eisenstein, the delectably chirpy Adele of Wilma Lipp and Anton Dermota's \o7 bel-canto\f7 Alfred.
The final polish is supplied by the charm and grace of Krauss' conducting, alert to every witty inflection of the score, and the Philharmonic's buoyant response.
The package also contains the 1951 studio-made Vienna Philharmonic "New Year's Concert," an annual event instituted by Krauss a decade earlier and that in recent years has been recorded live. The 1951 program includes such Strauss-Krauss-VPO treasures as Josef's "Dragonfly" polka, a tiny marvel of interpretive finesse, and a swirling "Tales From the Vienna Woods" that is likely to have you on your feet, exulting in 3/4 time.
More on this subject in a future column, in which your Strauss-besotted correspondent reports on arriving at the mid-point of the irresistibly quixotic endeavor by the upstart, intrepid Marco Polo label to record, on 40-odd CDs, the entire orchestral output of Johann Jr.