Feeling a waltz of whatever cut – Viennese, Parisian, Danish, Victorian, Ottoman – isn’t easy. When Harnoncourt directed his first New Year’s Day programme in the Musikverein in 2001, I recollect Simon Rattle confessing he was happy to leave the morning to someone else because waltzes (contrasting congas in Berlin since) weren’t his thing and never would be. Waltzes are exposing ground. A symphony challenges the intellect. A concerto invites one to a conversation. But a waltz asks you to admit to complex emotions, to give yourself to the moment, to be willing to let other forces take you over - the intimate chemistry of inviting eyes, murmured words, mingled perfumes, physical contact, swaying motion. 'A direct expression of sensuality … longing, desire and tenderness' (Max Graf).
The middle-European waltz rocked Americans and British high-society. Its inclusion in a Friday Ball given by the Prince Regent, 12 July 1816, prompted the London Times to judge it, ‘with pain’, an ‘indecent foreign dance’, an ‘obscene display’ fit only for ‘prostitutes and adulteresses’. ‘This is a circumstance which ought not to be passed over in silence. National morals depend on national habits: and it is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies, in this dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females […] we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion’. ‘Every [American] woman does, or ought to, know’ warned James Kirke Pauldin twelve years later, ‘that she cannot exhibit herself in the whirling and lascivious windings of a waltz without calling up in the minds of men feelings and associations unworthy of the dignity and purity of a delicate female. The lascivious motions - the upturned eyes, the dizzy circlings, the twining arms and projecting front - all combine to waken in the bosom of the spectators analogies, associations, and passions, which no woman who values the respect of the world ought ever wilfully challenge or excite.’ The polka of the late 1830s, early 40s - 'love, poetry and liberty’ from Prague via Paris - was another passion rouser. 'To dance the polka men and women must have hearts that beat high and strong,’ goes a French manual. ‘Tell me how you do the polka, and I will tell you how you love.’
‘As the people, so the music’. Look at Metternich's Vienna, the many-faced social environment that bred the waltz, and you will understand it better. A furnace of cultures from all points of the compass. An ‘eastern’ city of many temperaments, of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Bohemians, Hungarians, Latins, Armenians, wanderers, gypsies. ‘The Viennese are a very sensual people,’ wrote an English visitor, Henry Reeve, in 1805-06, during the first Napoleonic occupation. ‘No city can present such scenes of affected sanctity and real licentiousness […] women of quality have their lovers, and many a man keeps a mistress’. Come the end of the century, more or less, little had changed. Zweig paints a picture of ‘a dark underground vault [of eroticism outside marriage] over which rose the gorgeous structure of [Franz-Josef’s] middle-class society with its faultless, radiant façade […] female wares were offered for sale at every hour and at every price, and it cost a man as little time and trouble to purchase a woman for a quarter-of-an-hour, a hour or a night, as it did to buy a packet of cigarettes or a newspaper’. Such peoples and bedroom values, to misquote Schumann, ‘are an epitome of Vienna. As I listen to [a waltz] I can understand how such works may be born in such a setting’.
‘As the manner, so the result’. For Leonard Bernstein ‘the easiest composer to interpret’ was Mahler. ‘You can never be in any doubt about what he wanted. Because he tells you so himself in no uncertain terms’. By this token the Strausses and their kind are the most difficult. They, their scores, tell us virtually nothing. 19th century reception records several of the ingredients that helped make a performance an occasion, however. Storming fortissimos. The first violin soaring Paganini-like above the band. Strauss the Elder – Laube’s ‘modern hero of Austria, le Napoléon Autrichien’ – beating time with his body (Moscheles noted), whipping up a dance to ‘stir the blood like the bite of a tarantula’. ‘The accuracy, the sharpness, the exquisite precision [of Strauss’s direction] can be the result only of the most careful and persevering practice’; ‘ingenuity of detail, a striking brilliancy, strong colouring, and extreme contrasts’ (London, The Musical World). ‘To have the true notion of the effect of Mr Strauss’s waltzes,’ considered Fétis, Director of the Brussels Conservatoire, ‘one must hear them when his orchestra plays. This orchestra is the necessary complement to the music: it is the incarnation of the waltz […] like the waltz itself […] he has the quality of being animated, which is always lacking in our own orchestras but which is necessary to give the waltz its character’ (Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris).
Accuracy, attack, precision, colouring, contrast – what any good performance needs. But how much colouring (and weighting)? What kind of contrast – dynamic, temporal, articulative? How was tempo, rubato and phrasing gauged? What went into the shaping of cadences? How did the music breathe? Whether early 78s for His Master’s Voice, recorded thirty years after Strauss the Younger’s death by the Vienna Philharmonic under Clemens Krauss (following the Anschluss, perpetuator of the New Year’s Day tradition in 1939) reflect the Strauss style as it was we cannot be sure – aside from speculating that many of the musicians who worked under Strauss the Younger during his later years would not have been unknown to Krauss, and that the orchestra would in all likelihood have played from parts used (marked?) by Strauss himself. What seems clear, though, is that in terms of speed, flexibility, pointing and innuendo, Krauss left a defining inheritance – Tully Potter likening the glory of his reign and Vienna’s crème de la crème (then under the leadership of Mahler’s brother-in-law, the Jewish violinist Arnold Rosé) to ‘the musical equivalent of champagne’ ♫. In Krauss you’ll find bass accents thrusting deep to energise the music forwards; characteristic anticipations of the second beat; imperial march-echoes and deliberated polkas; heart-stopping luftpausen and silences; yearning, breathless tempo changes; the lightest of grace-notes; the quickening crescendo/gasping drawback at climaxes or before tuttis. Was there ever a grander, more ‘in love’, master of the style? Karajan in the Musikverein for the 1987 fest rekindled the spark, with just enough emphasis and quality of life-experience to make the difference between great and very great ♫ . Two years later, and again in 1992, Carlos Kleiber spell-bound us all, treading the sabre-edge between voluptuous and vulgar, too fast-too slow, nostalgia and sentimentality, to create a fabled memorial.
Entrée. Trembling, the woman rises, gradually, reaching out. Back arched, neck taut, pulse quickening. At the brink, the moment of yesterday and tomorrow before her, she hesitates, ransoming time. The kiss, enfoldment, delirium … Those promenades, tremulous overtures and crescendi/drawbacks, those destiny kisses, define the best waltzes – and decide the best performances, whether in orchestral dress, ‘Second Viennese School’ arrangement, string reduction (paired violins, viola and double-bass typically), first edition piano solo reference, or the transcendentalism of Godowskyian metamorphosis. Listen to Krauss. Karajan, in old age so wisely understanding of human feeling (the large-span gestures, aching rubati and aristocratic dynamics of An der schönen, blauen Donau). The touching of lips, the intoxicating ardency, of Reiner’s ‘Vienna girls’ Chicago way (Künstlerleben, Josef's Mein Lebenslauf ist Lieb’ und Lust - remarkably the delayed pulse and swell of the entry into the first dance ♫, Blauen Donau, Dorfschwalben aus Österreich). Eduard Strauss, last of the dynasty. Willi Boskovsky (the Vienna Philharmonic’s leader and Krauss’s New Year’s Day successor, 1955-79) in concert situation (more liberated than in the studio). The Kleibers. Latterly Franz Bauer-Theussl, Peter Guth, Jacek Kaspszyk. Listen to Schneider, Dittrich, the Ensemble Wien, the Alban Berg Quartet. To Rosenthal, Gulda, Cherkassky. Drink in, watch, Ozawa in 2002 - his hands-only attention to the tiniest details of phrasing, articulation, rhythm and cadence, his infectious love for the music defining the art.
The best readings recognise that flirtation and love, lust and the chase, unions for a lifetime or a night, meetings and partings, hope and break-up, sadness and smiles, go into characterising a waltz. And that not all are the soft-centred, repetitious ‘little stories of bashful courtship, impulsive infatuation, radiant happiness […] easily consolable melancholy’ of Eduard Hanslick’s 1899 obituary of Strauss the Younger - scenario of many an Austrian New Year’s Day video cameo. They acknowledge that the Strausses were charismatic men who knew how to ‘play’ an audience . And that the gypsy-fire down-river in Budapest, no less than the Ländler, burned within them – ‘scarcely music,’ sensed Arthur Symons on his way to Constantinople in 1902, ‘but rather nerves, a suspense, a wheeling of wings around a fixed point […] a native wildness speaks in it, it speaks in the eyes of these dark animals, with their look of wild beasts eyeing their keepers [...] It is tigerish, at once wild and stealthy. And it draws everything into its own net’ (Carlos K’s 1989 Ritter Pázmán czárdás ♫ ).
The finest identify, too, a darker symphonic animation, more subliminal than stated, achieved through unwritten dynamics and variations of tempo as much as emphases of bass-lines, inner voicings, and secondary doublings and counterpoints. Like playing fast (nothing kills a waltz or freezes its temperature quicker), the British ‘just get the notes’ approach (bane of my youth), or the conductor who forgets that a waltz is music for two, efficiently co-ordinated blending (a Mehta speciality, Muti’s also at times) can make for blandness. Similarly, well-rehearsed cliché (the mannered ritardandi and luftpausen of Maazel’s 2005 Blauen Donau). Occasionally you need to introduce other dimensions, another accent, to lift the texture and let tired phrases be heard in fresh contexts (Kleiber’s ’89 Blauen Donau ♫, Prêtre's legendary 2010 Morgenblätter, the presence of the St Petersburg etoile Olga Esina, costumed by Valentino, bringing added choreographic frisson ♫). Some of the symphonicised introductions to the big waltzes, their recollective cyclic codas - wonderous studies in adieu - amount to powerful atmosphere-setting tone-poems. G’shichten aus dem Wienerwald, with its rustic fifths, reed sounds, warm register strings, horn calls, flute bird-song and zither ländler, will always be an extraordinary feat, ‘the most nostalgic, the most Viennese, perhaps […] the most magical’ of the Strauss canon, as the London Record Guide put it in 1951. The breadth of Berg’s arrangement of Wein, Weib und Gesang arguably makes for an even more evocative canvas than the original. Fashioning poems of a vanished past out of these works hallmarks the great conductors. Watching Karajan take this repertory, my most vivid impression was how famous set-pieces were transformed into magnificent symphonic frescoes capturing and farewelling history – each held in an unforgettable end-of-Heldenleben time warp ♫. In ’89 Carlos Kleiber conjured correspondingly wondrous landscapes with Bei uns z’Haus ♫, and polkas by the talented Josef - Die Libelle and Moulinet. At the Festival Hall I remember Jascha Horenstein evoking similar images using a chain of Strauss waltzes to postlude and contextualise Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, following the composer’s own practice.