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Sommernachtskonzert 2019
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918–1990)
Candide Overture [5:01]
Johann STRAUß II (1825–1899)
Jubilee Waltz* (arr. Wolfgang Dörner) [7:59]
George GERSHWIN (1898–1937)
Rhapsody in Blue: Version for piano and orchestra (1942, orch. Ferde Grofé) [17:47]
Max STEINER (1888–1971)
Casablanca Suite* (Music from the Michael Curtiz film) [8:40]
John Philip SOUSA (1854–1932)
The Stars and Stripes forever [3:42]
Samuel BARBER (1910–1981)
Adagio for Strings (arr. composer from String Quartet Op.11) [8:59]
Carl Michael ZIEHRER (1843–1922)
Sternenbanner-Marsch* Op.460 (The Star-Spangled Banner March) [3:30]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphony No.9 in e minor ‘From the New World’ Op. 95: Allegro con fuoco [12:05]
Aaron COPLAND (1900–1990)
Hoe-Down* from Rodeo (encore) [3:54]
Johann STRAUß II
Wiener Blut Op.354 (encore) (download version only+) [9:40]
Yuja Wang (piano)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Gustavo Dudamel
* First performance at a concert of the Wiener Philharmoniker
rec. live June 20, 2019, Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna
SONY CLASSICAL 19075943542

In a sense, it’s slightly futile to review recordings of such concerts, especially as the VPO’s summer specials are free to enter, so it costs more to listen to the CD or to watch the DVD or blu-ray. On the other hand, the recording brings a record of the event to those who were not there, and it’s not shown as widely on television as the New Year’s Day event. The BBC didn’t show it until 7 July and then in a slightly abridged format. Thanks to my own dilatoriness, it will be nearer Midwinter than Midsummer when you read this; perhaps that’s not too bad – it might brighten up the gloomy weather.

The theme this year was all-American and with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm for the second time – he presided in 2012 – and Yuja Wang in the central piece, Rhapsody in Blue, enjoyment seems almost guaranteed. If the Dude was a surprise choice for the New Year’s concert in 2017, he was something of a shoo-in for this event.

Bernstein’s Candide Overture gets the programme off to a lively start; it’s the kind of music that Dudamel does well, though his view of it is surprisingly a little less exciting than can be the case, as, for example, from Christian Lindberg with the RLPO on BIS (BIS-2278, SACD, an all-Bernstein programme – review review review).

The Vienna Phil could surely play Strauss in their sleep. There appears to be only one other current recording of the Jubilee Waltz, in a different arrangement, from the Slovak Radio Orchestra (Marco Polo 8.223240, download only). In both performances it comes over as an amiable, gemütlich, piece: well crafted, but no match for dozens of other works by the Strauss family. It is, in fact, a concoction of themes from Johann II’s other music which he knocked up for his visit to the USA in 1872. The original ended with The Star-spangled Banner full blast, but it's included in the VPO concert in Ziehrer’s arrangement, so we get just a last-minute hint of the tune.

The programme stands or falls on the performance of Rhapsody in Blue, a work of which there is no lack of recordings, including several fine accounts in a variety of couplings. Yuja Wang has already recorded it with Camerata Salzburg on her road movie Through the Eyes of Yuja (C Major DVD/blu-ray 745408/745504). I haven’t heard that but it received a Gramophone award. My benchmark remains Leonard Bernstein, pianist and conductor, with the Columbia SO (Sony Originals 88697700432, mid-price, with An American in Paris and Bernstein West Side Story Dances and On the Waterfront Suite or Alto ALC1247, budget price – for details of the Alto see my review).

There are two elements to Rhapsody in Blue – the smoochy parts and the barnstorming bits – and it’s tempting to overdo one or the other. Wang and Dudamel perhaps stress the smoochy elements, though there’s also plenty of bravura display on show, too. They take a little longer than Bernstein, or, for a really spectacular performance, Benjamin Grover, the RLPO and James Judd on Decca (4783527, with Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Bernstein: Recording of the Month – review DL Roundup September 2012/2). So, having said that this is the pičce de résistance of the album, I find myself recommending that you look elsewhere; this performance just sounds a little too comfortable with itself. Bargain hunters are well served by the Alto reissue of the Bernstein recording. The equally fine Regis reissue of Eugene List’s recording is now download only and more expensive than the CD was1.

I have to admit that seeing the concert on television changed my mind somewhat. Yuja Wang’s rapt involvement with the more rhapsodic aspects of the work brings an added dimension and I felt more in tune with the performance than after simply hearing it. On the other hand, be warned that the sight of her very skimpy dress – blue, of course – and ridiculously high heels may prove distracting.

The digital booklet lists Chopin’s Waltz in c-sharp minor, Op.64/2; but that is not on the CD and it was omitted from the BBC television recording of the concert, as were the Strauss Jubilee Waltz and the Ziehrer march. Nor can I see it listed in the contents of the DVD and blu-ray; they also appear not to include the closing Wiener Blut, which is included with the download and the streamed versions, or the Hoe-down, which comes with the CD and download. (Nor is it correct to list the time as 81 minutes, which applies to the download only. Confusing? You bet.)

The suite from the film of Casablanca is something of a novelty; it’s hardly surprising that this is listed as the VPO’s first performance of it. There’s a stirring performance from Stanley Black with the London Festival Orchestra, originally, I think in Phase 4, so larger than life, which suits the music well. (Great Love Stories, Decca Cinema Gala 4178502, special Presto CD or download). Dudamel and the VPO use a different arrangement, which those who think Black’s version over-fussy will appreciate, though once again I found myself wondering what had happened to all the vitality that used to mark Dudamel’s conducting. Enjoyable as it is, I was expecting something a little livelier.

Unless you are looking for an all-Sousa album, which I know many find too much of a good thing, Dudamel’s lively account of Stars and Stripes is attractive. Let me remind Sousa addicts of Beulah’s three volumes of American Wind Band Classics, all from Fennell’s recordings with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, best obtained in lossless sound from Qobuz for the same price of Ł7.99 that others charge for mp3 – here here here. Though recorded in early stereo, Fennell’s Stars and Stripes on Volume I still takes some beating.

After that, the Barber Adagio provides an ideal respite.  With the Ziehrer, however, we’re back in festive mode and in US style.

I know that there are lots of potential listeners out there for recordings of bits of this and that. I’m sure they would be happy with this account of the single movement from the New World Symphony, though it’s not the one that I would have chosen to demonstrate the American influence on the music. It’s performed well enough – another work I’m sure that the VPO could play without conductor – but I do strongly recommend choosing a complete recording. There are seats at all prices, but my own favourites remain Karel Ančerl with the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon SU36622 – review) and Rafael Kubelík with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 4474122). Both come at mid-price, but the DG is especially good value, with Kubelík’s recording of No.8 as coupling. (The alternative DG Virtuoso coupling of Symphony No.9 with two items from Smetana’s Má Vlást offers less music for about the same price.)

After the symphony, the first encore, the Copland could easily have seemed an anti-climax, but the old Dudamel resurfaced here and the VPO sent us off (on television) with an account of Wiener Blut that wouldn’t have displeased Willi Boskovsky, though he took it a little faster in his 1957 VPO recording, preserved on the Double Decca twofer (4434732) and other larger collections.

In considering whether to choose the CD or one of the video options, it’s worth noting that the DVD is on sale for around the same price as the CD while the blu-ray, with superior sound and vision quality, costs only a little more. Some dealers are asking Ł14.99 for the download in lossless sound – more than the cost of the CD or DVD.

Don’t expect on video the kind of extras that accompany the New Year’s Day concert, with professionals dancing to the music, but we do see members of the audience dancing to the Hoe Down and, on television, several couples swirling around to Wiener Blut. The visuals of the Schönbrunn park and palace at night and the odd shot of the various Gassen of Old Vienna are tastefully done and shouldn’t distract from the music.

If, on the other hand, both encores are omitted from the DVD and blu-ray, as seems to be the case from the contents listed by the websites that I have checked, that’s half the fun of the evening gone. The Sony Classical UK website didn’t even seem to have heard of the CD, DVD or blu-ray.

You really need to see Yuja Wang’s energy in Rhapsody in Blue, but in every other respect the CD gives a very fair idea of what must have been more enjoyable to attend than to watch or to hear.

1 I can’t resist mentioning the weird cover of Eugene List’s recording of the Macdowell piano concertos on one of those odd download-only labels, showing not Eugene but Franz Liszt!

Brian Wilson

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