‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, they say, and the same might be said here. Only with difficulty does its uninvitingly monotone front reveal Schoenberg’s pencil drawing of himself. By contrast, the DVD itself is a colourful evocation of old Vienna that admirably demonstrates the power of DVD to add positively to what one merely hears on CD.
In sound only, the arrangements that Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern made of five Strauss waltzes are certainly an intriguing historical curiosity but they all too readily seem a poor substitute for the works in full orchestral garb. The brilliant idea here is to perform them inside a historic Viennese coffee house – the 130-year-old Café Sperl in the Gumpendorfer Strasse. The performers – members of the Vienna Philharmonic – are shown making their way from the State Opera House by public transport to the Sperl. There they perform before customers and waiters going about their everyday business – drinking coffee, reading newspapers, enjoying the music and silently conversing – all without interference to the actual music-making. Shots of night falling outside complete the impression of time spent in convivial surroundings.
The five Strauss waltzes are proficiently played and idiomatically phrased, and enjoyment is heightened by the further inclusion of three joyous pieces by Kreisler and an arrangement of Leopold Godowsky’s evocative Alt-Wien. As a bonus item, moreover, there’s a well-judged background talk on Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, for which four of the Strauss waltz arrangements were made. It’s nowhere explained – least of all in the sadly mangled booklet-note – that Schoenberg arranged the fifth waltz, the Kaiserwalzer, for a quite separate occasion in 1925. Yet the whole represents an altogether admirable demonstration of how DVD can combine enlightenment and pleasure to joyous effect.