Tribuna Musical: “The Great Waltz”, a tribute to the world´s most refined society dance

Tribuna Musical: lunes, marzo 07, 2016
“The Great Waltz”, a tribute to the world´s most refined society dance
Think of marriage parties nowadays. They usually start with a Johann Strauss II waltz, danced initially by the father and the bride (I did this ceremony twice with my daughters), followed by Sinatra (habitually “New York, New York”) and then the senior citizens leave the “stage” to the younger crowd and their music. So in 2016 the waltz is still a symbol of elegance and beauty in social occasions.

            With good reason: the waltz is such a beautiful dance that the most “waltzy” city, Vienna, made both Johann  Strauss I and Joseph Lanner the heroes of both the common people and the nobility before passing the scepter to Johann II, phenomenally popular and admired by all the great composers of the time.  But apart from the balls, the waltz also had a place in opera (Richard Strauss), of course operetta, in symphony and ballet (Tchaikovsky) or even as a sui generis tone poem (Liszt).

            And it still draws vast amounts of people, as demonstrated by the five thousand that attended “The Great Waltz”, the fine selection imagined by veteran maestro Mario Perusso for his concert with the Colón´s Resident Orchestra (“Estable”) at the Plaza Vaticano. It was the only “traditional” instance of the current Colón Summer Festival, heavily biased towards the 20th-21st Centuries.

            I am not an enthusiast of the Plaza Vaticano, I prefer my music in theatres and concert halls; the open air means city noise and amplification and I can do without both. So I would have enjoyed this concert much more at the Colón. Also that night was windy, and the poor musicians spent part of their time keeping their scores in place with brooches.

            The particular feeling for give-and-take of the waltz is quite tricky, and the sort of rigid beat of chains of waltzes -bits from several glued together- in marriage parties goes against the grain. Naturally such a distortion didn´t happen in this concert, but to be frank the particular “rubato” flexibility of the best practitioners wasn´t there: we had good, honest music-making,  not the unmistakeable lilt of such references as Boskovsky, Krauss or Jansons.

            The start came from a great composer, Carl Maria von Weber, famous for his Romantic opera (the first so-called) “Der Freischütz”, but also for a lovely piano piece, “Invitation to the dance”: slow introduction, waltz and slow coda; it became famous in its inspired orchestration by Hector Berlioz, and many decades later it was the basis of Fokin´s gorgeous ballet “The spectre of the rose”, danced by the likes of Nijinsky and Nureyev. The reading was rather tame, but from then on things picked up.

            I would have preferred a more imaginative choice than Johann Strauss II´s “Blue Danube” (or if you prefer the whole appellation, “On the strands of the beautiful blue Danube”); well, these days the river is hardly blue, but no matter: the waltz is still the most famous. But not necessarily the best; my own favorite is the “Emperor Waltz”. By the way, it may interest you to know that originally the “Blue Danube” wasn´t written for orchestra but for male choir!  The performance was nice enough.

            Another piece that was originally for piano is Franz Liszt´s “Mephisto Waltz Nº 1 ” and as such it is a stunning tour de force for virtuosi; I like it it very much in that form, but also in what feels in fact as a tone poem, the orchestration that converts it in the second episode for Lenau´s “Faust”: “The dance in the village´s tavern”. As suits the character evoked, the waltz is interspersed with rather sinister slow fragments. Perusso gave it some character and I enjoyed the version, although the amplification wasn´t good enough to appreciate the subtler details.

            My way of feeling and thinking is completely un-fan-like: I believe fanaticism blurs the mind and the senses. But whenever that malady tempts me, Richard Strauss´ “Der Rosenkavalier” is never far: for me it is the greatest of German-Austrian dramatic comedies, and the composer had an intuition that proved pure genius: the action happens during the years of Marie Therese´s Eighteenth Century reign when the waltz was non-existent, for that was the age of the minuet, but the waltz permeates large patches of the whole opera and is one of the things that make it unforgettable.

            After the enormous success of his opera, Strauss made a Suite which included waltzes but also such sublime pieces as the great Trio; eventually he made three sequences : one with waltzes of Acts 2 and 3; the second with those of only Act 2 (in which he corrected what he felt were ugly transitions); and one with Act 3. As I have no score I can´t be sure, but probably Perusso did the third of these sequences for he started with a waltz of the very beginning of Act 3 (after the Prelude).  He did a pretty good job.

            A charming Waltz from Shostakovich´s curiously named Jazz Suite Nº 2 (I see nothing jazzy except the presence of a saxophone solo)  preceded that marvelous blend of Impressionism and Expressionism, Ravel´s “La Valse”; Perusso managed a decent version; however, comparisons with fantastic previous interpretations kept intruding in my mind (e.g., Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic). The encore wasn´t a waltz but a famous polka by Johann II: “Tritsch-Tratsch”.

For Buenos Aires Herald 

Tribuna Musical: “The Great Waltz”, a tribute to the world´s most refined society dance

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