Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN the "blue" Danube and memories of Field Marshall Radetzky, the true spirit of Johann Strauss still awaits rediscovery. No doubt about it, the Waltz King's empire reaches beyond the ballrooms of Vienna to musical vistas where Brahms and Tchaikovsky would have felt at home. Listen carefully and the message soon registers - in the five- minute introduction to Wine, Women and Song, for example, which runs the emotional gamut from melancholy to exaltation in exquisitely modulated orchestration. And while Deutsche Grammophon's sumptuous 11-CD "Vienna Philharmonic-Johann Strauss Jubilee Edition 1999" calls freely on those many New Year concerts that we've known and loved for years, the repertoire (every Strauss piece that the Philharmonic has ever recorded) confirms the vast scope of Johann II's creative facility.

In addition to drawing from its own vast archive, DG has culled material (some of it previously unissued) from Decca, EMI, Sony, RCA, Philips and Austrian Radio. Virtually all the noted Straussians are represented, from Erich Kleiber in the Twenties to a Clemens Krauss broadcast from 1944; from the ubiquitous Willi Boskovsky to the imperious Herbert von Karajan. There's the dynamism of Mehta, Muti and Maazel, the lyricism of Krips and Knappertsbusch, the precision of Abbado and Szell. All combine a winning lilt with a keen ear, and don't imagine for a moment that the "old boys" have a monopoly on charm; Muti is every bit as beguiling as Krauss or Furtwangler.

Strauss's non-musical prompts were various, from a lawsuit for slander to an "Electrophorus" (a producer of static electricity). Vienna's blind community was offered Par force, and the Persian March celebrated the Shah's visit to St Petersburg. All is revealed in the handsome accompanying hardback book, though the music tells the richest tales. There's the elegance and lustre of Schneeglockchen, the unexpected delicacy of the Demolishers, a hilarious trip through Verdi's A Masked Ball (an accelerating quadrille), a furioso quasi-gallop that suggests the lighter side of Mussorgsky's Bare Mountain, and the seamless lines of Liebeslieder.

Rich pickings indeed, though others might prefer to sit by drumming their fingers while Steve Reich allows rhythmic patterns to repeat and converge. Phase Patterns sets the initial pulse on Wergo's new all-Reich CD - unnervingly at first, but give it time and the gradual metamorphosis starts to make sense. Ensemble Avantgarde opens and closes its programme on four electric organs, though brace yourself for the final selection (Four Organs) where maracas alone set the rhythm and the chosen chords stretch and coagulate like a mass of drying gum. The compulsive Piano Phase (for two pianos) is the easiest listen, and the three hypnotic shots at the dirge-like Pendulum Music - where four microphones swing past loudspeakers - offer as many varieties of electronic feedback. Lock into it, and Reich's compelling early work rests on its own infallible logic. All you have to do is put all other music out of your mind first - not least, Johann Strauss.

Strauss/ Vienna Philharmonic Deutsche Grammophon 459 734-3 (11 discs, limited edition)

Reich/Ensemble Avantgarde Wergo WER 6630-2

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