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Neujahrskonzert: New Year’s Concert, 2009
CD 1
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Overture Eine Nacht in Venedig [7:49]    
Märchen aus dem Orient, Walzer Op.333 [8:07]    
Annen Polka [4:31]
Schnellpost Polka, Op.159 [2:18]
Rosen Aus Dem Süden, Walzer, Op. 388 [8:42]    
Freikugeln, Polka schnell, Op. 326 [2:51]
Der Zigeunerbaron: Overture [8:05]    
Der Zigeunerbaron: Einzugsmarsch [3:15]
Schatzwalzer Op. 418 [7:44]   
JosephHELLMESBERGER II
Valse espagnole [3:04]
CD2
Johann STRAUSS I (1804-49)
Zampa Galopp, Op.62 [2:05]
Johann STRAUSS II
Alexandrinen Polka, Op.198 [5:55]
Unter Donner Und Blitz, Op. 324 [3:20]
Josef STRAUSS (1827-80)
Sphärenklange Waltz, Op. 235 [9:28]   
Johann STRAUSS II
Eljen A Magyar, Polka, Op. 332 [2:51]
Joseph HAYDN Symphony No. 45 in f-sharp Minor ‘Farewell’ – Finale (Presto) [7:48]
Johann STRAUSS II So ängstlich sind wir nicht – Polka schnell, Op.413 [2:26]
New Year’s Address 2009 [0:52]
Johann STRAUSS II An der schönen blauen Donau Waltz, Op.314 [10:01]    
Johann STRAUSS I Radetzky March, Op. 228 [3:58]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Golden Hall, Musikverein, Vienna, 1 January 2009. DDD.
DECCA 478 1133 [56:33 + 48:47]
Experience Classicsonline


 

For over twenty years, following the death of Clemens Krauss, the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day Concerts were the sole preserve of Willi Boskovsky. He directed the orchestra, as the Strauss family themselves had done, with violin to hand, ready to join in the music-making.  Much was lost when this partnership was dissolved, though, fortunately, the Decca archives are replete with material from this period.  The most basic material is to be found on the budget labels Eloquence (467 413 2) and Belart (450 003 2), with 2-CD sets on Double Decca (443 473 2 and 458 367 2), Universal Classics (476 589 4) and a 6-CD set on Decca London (455 254 2).  The Eloquence - one of those of European provenance – is without notes.

There are also two DVDs commemorating the collaboration, Vienna in Music (DG 0 73437 2) and The Best of the New Year’s Concerts (DG 0 73400 2, part mono).

The last concert which Boskovsky conducted, in 1979, was recorded in digital sound and remains available at mid price on Decca Legends 468 489 2.  The sound is a trifle bright – the engineers carried away with a new toy – but it’s well worth having for its historical value alone.

Even after 1979 EMI continued to record Boskovsky with another group of Viennese players, the Johann Strauss Orchestra.  At the time these were regarded as slightly inferior substitutes but time has mellowed the critics’ approach to the extent that the budget-price collection on Encore 5 75239 2 is now regarded in one current guide as essential listening.  There’s also a 2-CD set on EMI Gemini 3 81524 2 – see review, a 5-CD set (5 74528 2 – see review) and a 6-CD set (5 86019 2).

Best of all, in my opinion, were the three recordings which Boskovsky made in the early 1960s for the Vanguard label with a small hand-picked group, the Boskovsky Ensemble – not just the music of the Strauss family but including Lanner, Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, etc..  These have been in and out of the catalogue as the fortunes of the label have risen and fallen.  Last seen on a 2-CD set, Creampuffs from Vienna (ATMCD1194) they are well worth looking out for as remainders.  Fortunately, this set is still available to download from iTunes, though not in their iTunes plus format to which their whole catalogue is being upgraded – perhaps it would be best to wait until it is converted to this 256k bit-rate.

The practice since 1980 has been to invite distinguished guest conductors and, though this has not always worked very well, it has brought some memorable collaborations, notably with Herbert von Karajan (1987, DG 477 633 6, a recent mid-price reissue) and, best of all in my opinion, Carlos Kleiber (1989).  Incredibly, neither the CDs nor the DVD of the 1989 concert seem to be currently available. 

The Vienna Philharmonic could probably play most of this music in their sleep, regardless of who was conducting them, yet each visitor seems to produce something slightly different.  If you want an inexpensive sampler of those visiting conductors, try DG 459 730-2, a budget-price 2-CD set Best of Waltzes and Polkas, containing performances from 1973 (Böhm), 1980-83 (Maazel), 1987 (Karajan), 1988 and 1992 (Abbado), plus three appearances from Boskovsky (1959, 1972 and 1979).  All the music on the set is by Johann Strauss II except for Pizzicato-Polka, which he co-wrote with his highly talented brother Josef, and the final Radetzky March by Johann Strauss I.

This year the visiting dignitary was Daniel Barenboim.  The shorter first half of the programme was designed to reflect Barenboim’s own career and the second the bi-centenary of Haydn’s death.  The programme admits that some of the Haydn connections are rather oblique and, in truth, both elements are little more than pegs to hang the music on.  Thus the programme begins with the Overture to Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice); it isn’t as if we haven’t heard this before on New Year’s Day, but this year we had the version performed in Berlin in honour of Barenboim’s connection with the Berlin Philharmonic.  The next item, Märchen aus dem Orient (Fairy tales from the Orient) more obliquely refers to his foundation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of young Israeli and Palestinian players.  This is one of the works receiving its first performance at the New Year’s Concert; I can’t claim that it made a great impression on me.  Thereafter, apart from the fact that the quick polka Freikugeln (CD1, track 6, Magic bullets) was first performed in 1868 at a shooting competition between Austrians and Prussians who had recently been at war – another reference to Barenboim’s work for peace in the Middle East – the connections are pretty tenuous.

In the longer second part, which actually began not with CD2 but with track 7 of CD1, the Overture and Entry March from Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gipsy Baron), the connections are supposedly with Haydn.  Zigeunerbaron is set in Hungary and Haydn worked for many years as Kappelmeister to the Esterházy family, with estates at Eisenstadt in Austria and Esterháza over the Hungarian border.  That’s about as close as the connections get until the orchestra slims down for the finale of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, which closes the official concert.

If the Boskovsky years were a Golden Age – and not everyone would agree, some regarding his direction as too schmaltzy – how does this year’s concert compare?  Let’s begin with two of the items which are always included, but never in the official programme, An der schönen, blauen Donau (CD2, tr. 9, By the beautiful blue Danube) and the Radetzky March (CD2, tr.10).  Boskovsky usually took around nine minutes over the Blue Danube, speeding up a little as the years went by: 9:17 in 1958, 9:13 in 1960, 8:59 in 1979.  Visiting conductors frequently linger a little longer – Karajan (1987) took 10:03 and this year Barenboim also needed a whole ten minutes.

Boskovsky was also rather more expeditious in the Radetzky March (2:57 or 2:59 in 1963, depending on which CD sleeve you believe), against Barenboim’s 3:58.  Incidentally, Decca seem remarkably coy about the timings on the new CD: I had to work out the total time for each CD myself and I obtained the track timings from the download version on Universal’s classicsandjazz.co.uk website.

The march is not much more than a fun piece now, though it originally had a political significance in that it celebrated a reactionary general responsible for delaying Italian independence, but the slower timing for the Blue Danube does indicate a tendency for non-Viennese conductors to over-egg the pudding a little in this piece, which foreigners have always tended to over-romanticise – beginning with Brahms who wrote underneath the music’s opening bars that it was, sadly, not by Johannes Brahms.  The reality is that the Danube is usually anything but blue and Boskovsky’s slightly brisker way with the piece is more to the point – a little less sentimental than Barenboim overall but slightly more sensitive to individual nuances.

I played his 1979 version immediately after Barenboim’s and, allowing for the rather coarser sound of the early digital era, at least on my copy of the earlier issue of the programme on 440 962-2, as against the much smoother 2009 recording, the differences were apparent.  Heard on its own, Barenboim’s performance is very good, with all the spirit of the music – until you listen to Boskovsky and hear the little extra that the VPO deliver for him: the minute holdings-back, the slight surges forward, the diminuendi at crucial points and the subtle increase in volume thereafter, all delivered at a comparatively fast-moving tempo overall.

The same is true in the Annen-Polka, where Boskovsky took 3:55 in 1972 and Barenboim (CD1, tr.3) takes 4:31; even allowing for the brief applause on the new CD, I again marginally prefer either the Boskovsky performance or Karajan’s (1987) half-way house of 4:04.  Again in Unter Donner und Blitz (CD2, tr.3, Thunder and Lightning) Barenboim savours the music a fraction too long at 3:20 against Boskovsky’s 2:58 in 1959.  Karajan in 1987 got away with a timing of 3:16 but, like Boskovsky, he was no stranger to music which he had conducted and recorded many times and he knew what he could get away with.  There’s just that little extra menace from the thunder and lightning in Boskovsky’s version and the ADD sound is, if anything, preferable to the DDD recording of his 1979 concert, though less full than the new recording.

On the other hand, Barenboim’s Rosen au dem Süden (CD1, tr.5, Roses from the South) at 8:42 does make Böhm’s 1973 version (9:40) sound rather arthritic but slow against Boskovsky’s 8:04 on the Double Decca set 443473-2.  His Eljen a Magyar! (CD2, tr.5) is about on a par with Maazel’s 1983 version – both are suitably brisk and enjoyable.

Usually there is at least one item by Josef Strauss, Johann II’s highly talented brother, and this I always look forward to.  This year it was Sphärenklänge (CD2, tr.4, Music of the Spheres) a waltz of almost symphonic stature and another piece which Boskovsky also included in his final concert.  Once again Barenboim lingers a little more over this work: 9:28 against Boskovsky’s 8:33 in 1979.  (An even faster version at 8:25 on Double Decca).  Either conductor will certainly make you aware of the value of Josef’s music and, perhaps, even point you in the direction of Marco Polo’s complete recordings of his works, but Boskovsky just does that little extra to convince me of its qualities.

The finale of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony (CD2, tr.6) was neither here nor there, a bit of harmless fun that can’t really be savoured on audio only – you can just hear the instrumentalists leaving one by one, but the audience’s laughter seems rather pointless.

The sound produced by ORF on the day, on radio and TV, was excellent but Decca go that little bit better.  If their 1979 live digital sound was less than ideal, the intervening 30 years have brought great improvements.  I’m surprised, in fact, that we weren’t offered a hybrid SACD recording – don’t be misled by the round-cornered jewel case into thinking that we are: Universal seem to be using these cases for all their new premium releases.

Inevitably there are signs of haste in the presentation of a CD set which came out just 18 days after the concert: for example, the lack of track- and CD-timings and the fact that the photo-montage for the cover doesn’t seem to show this year’s orchestra – a mock-up was on display on the VPO website before the concert and I don’t see, either there on the two-page spread inside the booklet, the two lady performers who appeared this year.  German readers with defective sight will hardly thank Decca for printing their text in a very small font in white on an orange background.

Is it worth waiting a little longer for the DVD and blu-ray versions, due to appear in February, 2009?  Judging by the television presentation, the CD inevitably misses some of the sense of occasion and the evident mutual respect between Barenboim and the VPO.  I’m not always a great fan of DVDs of orchestral performances, and I can do without the swathes of flowers and the interpolated ballet sequences, fine as they are for the Gemütlichkeit of New Year’s Day, but I do think on this occasion that the visual content is worth having.

Though I may have sounded a little disparaging, I can recommend this new set with confidence.  Strauss novices might be better to start with one of the Boskovsky recordings or with the 2-CD DG set on 459 730-2, but I thoroughly enjoyed what I heard on New Year’s Day and I was very happy to hear it again on these CDs before I started to make comparisons.  Don’t be too critical – just sit back and enjoy this souvenir of an enjoyable occasion.  Don’t even worry about the short playing time – that’s taken into account in the price of the CDs.

If you’ve got some of those older recordings by Boskovsky, Karajan and Kleiber, and this new recording leads you to dig them out and enjoy them too, so much the better.
 
Brian Wilson


 


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