The Never-Ending Waltz: Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Erich Kunzel, cond.
Telarc SACD-60668 SACD, Robert Woods, prod.; Michael Bishop, eng. DDD. TT: 66:06.
Personal confession time: I get discs in the mail and I try to listen to 'em all, but sometimes it just seems like work, you know? It is—in fact, it's my job. Considering all the time I've spent on the wrong sides of both shovels and bedpans, I know better than complain about my current gig.
When The Never-Ending Waltz ended up in my mailbox, I didn't exactly move it to the top of my to-play pile. Quite the opposite. It kept winding up somewhere in the "someday" stack, where I finally grabbed it, not out of dedication, but because I thought I was picking the disc it was beneath.
WTF? I thought when Johann Strauss, Jr.' "Tales from the Vienna Woods Waltz" started playing. Just as quickly, I also thought, Whoa—this is great! Sixty minutes later, I came up for air.
That requires a little explanation, so we'll need to delve into the high concept of The Never-Ending Waltz. TNEW doesn't just sound fantastic (more later), it literally is never ending: It's 44 waltzes, thematically divided into 8 suites that flow into one another, creating a seamless 66-minute whole. The waltzes are divided into categories identified as: Johann Strauss, Jr. waltzes; Vienna waltzes; operetta waltzes; opera waltzes; Waldteufel waltzes; concert waltzes; ballet waltzes; and Tchaikovsky waltzes..
Yes, details get shaved—vocal lines are replaced by instrumental textures and key changes are cheated a little, and, yes, there are a few stretches involved. Yet, the conceit works—for me, at least, far better than a recording of 44 waltz vignettes would have.
Part of this, I suspect, is because the waltz rhythm is inherently unbalanced, with its one-two-three cadence wobbling between strong and weak beats. There's a flow to the waltz that the, say, equally elemental four-beat march lacks. The waltz is charming. At its best, it balances gaiety against elegance and it can beguile, even as it makes us tear up.
Yes, as happy as the waltz can be, it can also evoke nostalgia or longing. And walking—or should I say waltzing?—upon that razor's edge, is the Cincinnati Pops' inspired performance of these works. The first rule of great playing is to play as if it means something—and that's never more important than when you're playing "minor" works. You have to commit to genre.
Yet, you can't play Waldteufel as if it was Wagner; you simply have to play it as if getting it right was as important as getting Wagner right. That commitment is precisely what the CPO brings to the table. TNEW strikes the perfect balance between perfection and insouciance.
The sound of the SACD is simply phenomenal, whether in two-channel DSD, multichannel DSD, or two-channel Red Book. The strings have a liquidity that will have you melting or, at least, they had me doing so. And their overtones are extended and crisp—as is the leading edge and decay of the percussion section's battery of effects, gongs, and chimes.
Best of all, there's weight and heft from the CPO, which, in true waltz fashion, never slows down or wobbles out of control. The balance is deft and compelling—in short, it's perfect.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I haven't convinced you to pick up TNEW. I could have made all of these arguments to myself and the disc might still be in the middle of my to-play pile. So here's the clincher: The holiday season is coming up and you may find yourself at the in-laws' or your moms' place, listening to the 101 Strings' Holiday Craptacular for the 5 gazillionth time. You'd do anything to avoid that fate wouldn't you?
All you have to do is pick up The Never-Ending Waltz and take it along. It's non-denominational, so it's equally appropriate for Kwanzaa, Christmas, or Hannakah—and it's pretty enough that everybody will love it, or at least not carp about it. And if you're really, lucky, your in-laws, your folks, or even your significant other may break into spontaneous dancing. Now that ought to earn you beaucoup good-sport credit.
And when the holidays are over, you'll have a fantastic sounding recording to play on your he-man rig.
Assuming they let you take it away with you.