The annual New Year’s concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic date back to somewhere between the Mesozoic and Paleozoic eras. Or so it seems. Actually, the tradition got started in 1941 and has been going strong ever since. Companies recording the concerts over the past few decades have included EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and Sony; and, of course, the orchestra invites a different conductor to perform the duties each year. These conductors in recent years have included some of the biggest names in the business, including Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, and 2013’s maestro, Franz Welser-Most.
Welser-Most also conducted the 2011 concert, so he’s no stranger to the proceedings. What’s more, in addition to his post as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, he is presently the General Music Director of the Vienna State Opera and has strong family links to Johann Strauss ancestry dating back to the early nineteenth century. You might say that music, and especially the music of Vienna, is in Welser-Most’s blood.
For 2013’s concert, Welser-Most and the concert’s organizers divided the program into two major sections: The first part contains the usual Strauss, Suppe, and Lanner tunes; the second part celebrates the 200th anniversary of both Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi with samples of their music interspersed with Strauss numbers. Sony recorded almost all of the concert, twenty selections, in this two-disc set.
Things get off to a typically rousing start with Josef Strauss’s Soubrette polka, a lively and explosive affair. Next, we hear Johann Strauss Jr.’s Kiss Waltz, one of the Waltz King’s sweeter concoctions. And so it goes through polkas, waltzes, quadrilles, dances, galops, fantasies, and marches. Welser-Most breaks up the Strauss family music with tunes from Franz von Suppe (The Light Cavalry Overture), Wagner (Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin), Joseph Hellmesberger (Between the Two of Us polka), Joseph Lanner (Styrian Dances), and Verdi (Battle Music from Act III of Don Carlo).
My own favorites among the selections include the aforementioned Kiss Waltz, Josef Strauss’s Music of the Spheres waltz and The Spinner polka, and Strauss Jr.’s lovely Hesperus’ Path Waltz.
Naturally, the festivities end with the inevitable Blue Danube Waltz and then the Radetzky March, as always with the audience joyously joining in. Welser-Most maintains the high standard of these affairs with vigorous, buoyant performances, and the Vienna Philharmonic play as faultlessly as ever.
Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the performance live for Sony Classical on January 1, 2013, in the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins. Normally, I’m not fond of live recordings, but once a year, every year, I make an exception for the New Year’s concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. The set is not so much a recording of music as it is a recording of an event, and as such I suppose one can cut it a little slack in terms of ultimate fidelity. Most live recordings try to minimize audience noise; this one doesn’t. Indeed, it positively revels in it, reminding the home listener at every opportunity that there is a live audience at the concert enjoying every minute of the proceedings with their applause and laughter.
The engineers miked the orchestra fairly close-up and obtain a very big sound, with an enormous dynamic range and huge impact. The result is quite spectacular and provides plenty of visceral musical thrills. There is not a lot of depth, air, or even hall ambience involved, though, so don’t expect a particularly realistic offering here. Although the strings are somewhat bright, thin, and forward, we might expect that, given the circumstances.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: