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
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
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
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.