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Memories of Vienna
Hilde Gueden (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra, New Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker/Josef Krips
rec. 1948-57
ELOQUENCE 484 0692 [76:01]

Certain pieces of music are indelibly associated with this time of the year. The most obvious examples are Christmas carols, which you may prefer to hear at the sophisticated level of King’s College Cambridge’s Nine lessons and carols (see here and, for an interesting historical perspective, here). Even so, you will also be in all probability obliged to hear them in somewhat more mundane circumstances as they blare out mercilessly from the public address system while you buy your supermarket mince pies.

Again, I need not remind MusicWeb readers that we are also right in the midst of Nutcracker time. Ballet companies regard a Christmas production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet as a well-nigh guaranteed financial hit that helps subsidise the rest of the year’s activities. You can also generally expect any recordings on Blu-ray, DVD or CD to be released in November or December so as to catch the market for seasonal gifts.

If Christmas is closely associated with Tchaikovsky, then the Strauss dynasty of Vienna has established a good claim to ownership of any celebrations associated with the arrival of a new year. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual New Year’s Day concert may actually have had its modern origins as a Nazi wartime propaganda stunt, but these days tens of millions of TV viewers watch it in almost a hundred countries around the world. For many of them, no doubt, it is their only regular exposure to such music.

Music has, in fact, a strong claim to be the world’s most international language. It may therefore be fitting that during the past 40 years the Vienna New Year’s Day conductors have hailed from countries as diverse as France, Italy, Germany, India, Japan, Latvia, Argentina and Venezuela. Native-born Austrians have, in fact, only occupied the coveted podium on seven occasions in that period, in the form of Herbert von Karajan (1987), Carlos Kleiber (1989 and 1992), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (2001 and 2003) and Franz Welser-Möst (2011 and 2013).

Before 1980, on the other hand, the annual conductorship had been an entirely home-grown affair, held successively by Clemens Krauss (1939, 1941-1945 and 1948-1954), Josef Krips (1946 and 1947) and, most famously, the VPO’s long-time concertmaster Willi Boskovsky (1955-1979).

Josef Krips only led two of those 1st January concerts, but that was no reflection on his ability. Rather simply, their established conductor Krauss had been temporarily barred from the podium during his post-war de-Nazification proceedings. We may, indeed, infer that Krips’s two concerts must have gone rather well. Not only did he emerge as a strong candidate for re-election to the post after Krauss’s death in 1954, but this newly released compilation definitively confirms his expertise and genuine flair in this repertoire.

We may also surmise with some confidence that Krips’s empathetic skill owed much to his personal background. Like Krauss and Boskovsky, he was a native-born Viennese. Moreover, he grew up in a musical milieu still dominated by the waltz. He was educated at the city’s Academy of Music. His early professional development was centred on the Volksoper where he became concertmaster at the age of just 15 (!) and had, within just four more years, been appointed chorusmaster and made his debut as a conductor of opera. By the same time, he had conducted his first symphony concert in the city. More than 50 years later, Krips’s New York Times obituary rightly emphasised the significance of his origins. It described him as “one of the last representatives of the great Viennese school of conducting… [who was] regarded as the leading recent exponent of the mellow, singing Viennese tradition”. The influence of that tradition, along with Krips’s early associations and close familiarity with Vienna’s fin de siècle and early 20th century culture, may well account for the particular affinity he was to demonstrate for the Viennese waltz.

The tracks on this new Decca Eloquence release amply justify Krips’s reputation. He had famously opined both that “without love, there is no music”, that music should be “one long legato line” and that he wished everything he conducted to have “a relaxed sound”. Peter Quantrill’s first-class booklet notes characterise Krips’s interpretations as exhibiting an “unforced lilt and easy, flexible pulse that make [this repertoire] dance”, and he is absolutely right. In a crowded field, it is difficult to think of any other recordings of Strauss-family waltzes – with the possible exception of those led by the equally Viennese Boskovsky (review) – that demonstrate such consistent affection, comfortable relaxation and sheer Gemütlichkeit.

Orchestral and interpretative standards are, in fact, so high and consistent on this disc that it is not especially useful to single out any piece for praise. It is, however, worth noting that the soprano Hilde Gueden has been employed for the optional vocal parts in Dorfschwalben aus Österreich and Frühlingsstimmen. Ms. Gueden was a famous Rosalinde in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, immortalised in recordings led by Krauss (Naxos - review) and by Karajan (Alto - review), and she was particularly well-suited for this type of repertoire. Her contributions are both idiomatic and quite delightful, with a notably vivacious characterisation of the soaring and swooping Austrian village swallows in Dorfschwalben. Her vocal contribution is not, by the way, the only one on offer here; keen-eared listeners will catch Krips himself adding a softly-spoken “And so on…” at the very end of Perpetuum mobile.

Most of the thirteen tracks on this well-filled disc, recorded between 1948 and 1957, are now seeing their first, or their first international, CD release on the Decca label. Typically for Decca recordings of this vintage, the sound quality is very clear and detailed. It clearly reveals the conductor’s skilful manipulation of dynamics and orchestral balance to display the scores in their best possible light. While the booklet notes are very useful indeed and a real pleasure to read, there is an error in its track listings that is replicated on the CD’s rear cover: Frühlingsstimmen is attributed to Josef Strauss, whereas it was written 12 years after his death by his more famous brother Johann.

Please do not be misled by the fact that this disc has been released in the run-up to the New Year TV Strauss extravaganza. These are performances of the highest quality, and you will enjoy them not just with a strictly seasonal slice of stodgy Christmas cake but at any time of year with a plate of delectable Viennese whirls – elegant, buttery confections which match these performances to a T. They may not, perhaps, be as nutritious or substantial a snack as some others but, considered on their own terms as sweetly flavoursome treats, they are invariably and absolutely delicious.
Rob Maynard
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Wiener Blut, op. 354 (1873) [8:16]
Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849)
Piefke und Pufke – polka française, op. 235 (1849?) [2:35]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, op. 214 (1858) [2:33]
Wein, Weib und Gesang, op. 333 (1869) [5:57]
Annen-Polka, op. 117 (1852) [3:27]
Perpetuum mobile, op. 257 (1861) [2:50]
An der schönen blauen Donau, op. 314 (1866) [8:47]
Accelerationen, op. 234 (1860) [8:26]
Kaiserwalzer, op. 437 (1888) [9:59]
Rosen aus dem Süden, op. 388 (1880) [8:00]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) and Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)
Pizzicato-Polka (1869) [2:44]
Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)
Dorfschwalben aus Österreich, op. 164 (1864) [5:30]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Frühlingsstimmen, op. 410 (1882) [5:57]
Recording details
Perpetuum mobile, Annen-Polka: Kingsway Hall, London, 1948
Wiener Blut, Piefke und Pufke, Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, Wein, Weib und Gesang: Kingsway Hall, London, 1950
Dorfschwalben aus Österreich, Frühlingsstimmen: Sofiensaal, Vienna 1956
An der schönen blauen Donau, Accelerationen, Kaiserwalzer, Rosen aus dem Süden, Pizzicato-Polka: Sofiensaal, Vienna 1957

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