STRAUSS IN IDIOMATIC PERFORMANCES BY VIENNESE ORCHESTRA

By Lawrence Budmen

For nearly two centuries the Viennese waltz has defined Austro-Hungarian culture. Composers as diverse as Franz Lehar, Emerich Kalman, and Robert Stolz wrote classic operettas and waltzes but no composer defined Vienna (and its music) like Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899). Strauss wrote hundreds of waltzes and polkas as well as such famous operettas as "Die Fledermaus" and "The Gypsy Baron." Each New Year's Day millions of people around the world listen to Strauss's music on the annual New Year's Concert from Vienna. The New Year came early to South Florida when the Vienna Symphony Orchestra devoted part of its concert to this traditional Viennese repertoire on October 30, 2003 at Dade County Auditorium. The program opened the season of the Concert Association of Florida.

The honey dipped Viennese strings, mellow winds, and full toned brass of this orchestra brought a splendidly idiomatic sound to this music. "Weaner Mad"n Waltz," Opus 388 by Carl Michael Zieher, a Strauss contemporary, set things in motion in glorious three quarter time. Viennese orchestras have always had a unique way of playing this music. The slight deceleration of the beat that Viennese musicians bring to these waltzes makes them all the frothier. The Zieher waltz was pure musical whipped cream. The ensemble's music director Vladimir Fedoseyev (longtime conductor of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio) brought surprising rhythmic lift and bounce to two delightful Strauss polkas - "Sturmisch in Lieb und Tanz" ("Stormy in Love and Dance"), Opus 393 and "Electrofor," Opus 297. A particularly delectable musical confection was Strauss's "Quadrille - "Maskenball" ("Masked Ball"), Opus272. Here was a medley of themes from Verdi's "Un Ballo en Maschera" - often set in waltz and polka time. Fedoseyev and his musicians played it brio and panache. The chestnut "Rosen aus dem Suden" ("Roses from the South") was nicely played but could have used more lilt. In the tradition of the Viennese New Year's concert, there were three Strauss encores. The "Thunder and Lightening Polka" was given a zesty, crackling rendition. "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" lacked verve and was strangely earthbound. The "Radetsky March," Opus 228 by Johann Strauss, Sr. brought the concert to an appropriately rousing close with the audience clapping along to the music, delivered with high spirits by conductor and orchestra. 

Earlier in the evening the music making was less consistent. The "Symphony No.3 in D Major," D.200 by Franz Schubert is one of that composer's most charming, melodic scores. The performance took too long to catch fire. The opening Adagio maestoso-Allegro con brio lacked sparkle. Here Fedoseyev's tempo was rather pedantic. The Allegretto (as delightful a melody as Schubert ever wrote) was played efficiently but lacked the elegance and Viennese lift that Carlos Kleiber and Hans Vonk bring to this music. The schmaltzy Viennese strings were a definite asset. The Menuetto vivace was all light hearted vigor. The sweet toned, aristocratic playing of the winds in the Trio was lovely and the Presto vivace finale had appropriately Rossinian opera buffa vigor. The ensemble playing had that suave Central European sound. 

In Mozart's "Violin Concerto No.3 in G Major," K.216 Fedoseyev and violin soloist Nikolaj Znaider seemed to be giving two different performances. While conductor and orchestra were playing high spirited Mozart, the soloist seemed to be taking a slower, more introverted approach. Several seasons ago Znaider gave a performance of the Bruch concerto with the Florida Philharmonic under James Judd that was not very impressive. He remains a puzzling artist. While he has a strong, note perfect technique, his playing is too cool and cerebral. In the Mozart concerto, he played with a small, not particularly alluring tone. Much of the time he played without vibrato - fine for a period instrument performance, but all wrong for a modern instrumental reading in a large auditorium. In the Adagio his neutral approach lacked rococo elegance and ardor; the concluding Rondeau: Allegro needed more virtuosity and zest. The music failed to sparkle despite the best efforts of Fedoseyev and his musicians. Znaider's Mozart interpretation might work in a small hall with a chamber orchestra. Here it was strangely unsatisfying.

Any concert that delivers authentic Viennese three quarter time is an event. What better way to open a concert series than with the Viennese confections of Johann Strauss, Jr. and his contemporaries! At its best the authentic Viennese sound can be intoxicating. It was a joy to hear the Vienna Symphony Orchestra play this music so idiomatically! 


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