Viennese Nights at the BBC Proms
The music of Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár and Franz von Suppé
Performances conducted by James Loughran, Walter Süsskind, and János Fürst
rec. 1974-79

This DVD contains six visits to the BBC Proms in successive years, some visits of shorter duration than others, to catch performances of Viennese classics given a local English accent. Most performances are in the hands of James Loughran and the Hallé, but there’s a bonus of a single performance by János Fürst with the old BBC Northern, and the considerable pleasure of seeing Walter Süsskind in six outings with both the BBC Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic.

Loughran back in this period looked like a youngish Carlo Maria Giulini. Behind his back serried ranks of youthful Prommers sway merrily, knotted handkerchiefs on their long-haired heads. Mr Gumby clearly ruled the roost. They grin, gurn, guffaw, sing along, pass along cans and take dirty great swigs, and even, at one point, dance in the arena. The Pythonesque rollicking of the student audience perhaps allows one to forget that the orchestra’s visits to the Proms had been a regular occurrence under John Barbirolli, then only a few years dead.

One feature of the DVD is that since it’s been programmed composer by composer — pieces by Johann Strauss II followed by Lehár and then back to Strauss II, before Strauss I and finally von Suppé — we move from one performance back to another, thence to another. It is, I think, disconcerting to start with Loughran in 1974, roll onto Süsskind in 1978, scoot back to Loughran in 1975 and so on. I appreciate it’s not Mahler’s Ninth, but the lack of continuity and programmatic integrity within performances is most odd.

The BBC Symphony are decked out with umbrellas in their outing in 1978 in Unter Donner und Blitz — along with very white shirts under which British men then still wore string vests, many plainly visible. The only thing stranger than all this malarkey is Süsskind’s wig. In fact it was a leitmotif of watching him that one minute I swore I could see the join, and the next I swore I couldn’t. Then I came to the conclusion it wasn’t a wig at all. Such are the perils for a critic of watching sweaty Waltz nights on DVD. The Czech-born conductor is first rate - he was a marvellous accompanist too - and it was a special pleasure to me to see him, my first such opportunity. He was very popular in Britain, and never gave up his British citizenship. Unlike Loughran he doesn’t camp things up.

Sheila Armstrong appears in two songs from Fledermaus and she sings with coloratura brilliance. Tellingly the orchestra clearly enjoyed her singing, as did I.

Other things that I noticed; there’s a fiddle dude in the RPO with dark shades and a rather Mafioso look about him. Others look like the late Screaming Lord Sutch. The beards and Zapata moustaches in the 1979 BBC Northern are straight out of The History Man. Those were the days.

The only demerit of the footage is a slight bit of distortion in the last track, in which János Fürst extracts a full complement of Brucknerian heft from Suppé. Also, some of the camera shots linger on the wrong things. There are too many shots of Loughran and too few of his band, whereas there are too many shots of his bands and too few of Süsskind.

All right; who is this for? Nostalgics? Lovers of Prom history? Loughran family members? Waltz addicts who don’t mind the British bulldog biting the balls of Viennese elegance? It’s unruly, it’s uncouth, and it’s decidedly de trop. I quite liked it.

Jonathan Woolf

It’s unruly, it’s uncouth, and it’s decidedly de trop. I quite liked it.