New Year's Concert 2016 (CD review)

Mariss Jansons, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88875174802 (2-disc set).

Another year, another concert.

The Vienna Phil have been celebrating this occasion for seventy-five years, and I'm sure they will still be doing it in another seventy-five.

As usual, a record company (in this case, Sony, although it has varied through the years) recorded the event live, and as always there is a different conductor at the helm each year (in this case, Mariss Jansons). Furthermore, and also as always, the Vienna Philharmonic plays magnificently, as though born to the music. Well, I daresay, most of the Vienna players were, in fact, born to the music.

The Vienna Phil's custom of offering a New Year's Concert started in 1941, and it's been going strong ever since. EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and Sony are among some of the companies that have recorded the concerts over the past few decades, and in keeping with the orchestra's tradition of having no permanent conductor, they invite a different conductor to perform the New Year's duties each year. These conductors in recent times have included some of the biggest names in the business, like Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Franz Welser-Most, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, and this year Mariss Jansons.

The two CD's in the set contain twenty-two items from the concert, but if you want to hear (and see) the concert in its entirety, the folks at Sony make it available on DVD and Blu-ray. Or if you're into vinyl, they're issuing it in that configuration as well. And as if that's not enough, the Sony people have also released a big "75th Anniversary Edition" box set containing all 319 works ever performed at the concert, under 14 conductors. A little something for everybody.

Anyway, the present set contains the expected entries: Johann Strauss's "Treasure Waltz," "Emperor Waltz," "Pleasure Train," "A Night in Venice Overture," "At the Hunt," "At the Double," and, of course, "The Blue Danube"; Josef Strauss's "Harmony of the Spheres," "On Vacation," and "The Dragonfly"; Eduard Strauss's "Express Mail"; and the elder Strauss's "Signs Galop" and in the traditional conclusion the "Radetzky March," with its attendant hand-clapping.

Mariss Jansons
But in addition this year, we find eight numbers never before played at a New Year's concert: Robert Stolz's "March of the United Nations," which leads off the proceedings; Johann Strauss's "Violetta," "Singer's Delight," and "Furstin Ninetta Entr'acte Akt III"; Carl Michael Ziehrer's "Viennese Girls"; Eduard Strauss's "Out of Bounds"; Josef Hellmesberger's "Ball Scene"; and, a real showstopper, Emile Waldteufel's "Espana."

Jansons has a pleasing grasp of the waltz idiom. He never forces the dance rhythms too far but provides them a graceful gait and flowing pattern. The waltzes, therefore, come across less as traditional, danceable music than as sweet, Romantic gestures. It's all quite pleasurable, quite listenable, quite easy on the ear, with not a little tugging of the heartstrings.

The polkas and gallops, to their credit, sound robust and zesty. Jansons changes the pace effectively, investing each of the faster numbers with the kind of tempos and contrasts that provide appropriate variety to the program.

Of course, it helps to have a first-rate, world-class orchestra at the conductor's disposal to accomplish this feat. The Vienna Phil sound wonderful. And the inclusion of the Vienna Boys Choir in two of the numbers comes as a welcome treat.

The booklet notes by Sylvia Kargl and Friedemann Pestel include information about each of the concert selections in concise yet entertaining terms. However, neither the booklet nor the packaging contains any track timings. Seems odd.

Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and engineers Tobias Lehmann, Rene Moller, and Julian Schwenkner recorded the concert live for Teldex Studio Berlin and Sony Classical at the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins on January 1, 2016.

Part of the fun of these annual concerts is that the orchestra performs them before a live audience, and the audience becomes as much a part of the show as the music. Accordingly, one is always aware of the audience's presence. They are there breathing, coughing, shuffling, and applauding.

Otherwise, we get the anticipated close-up sound, but, thankfully, not too close-up. It seems a nice compromise for a live event, minimizing some of the audience noise while retaining some of the concert hall's natural bloom and ambience. The detailing sounds pretty good, too, without being absolutely top-drawer, as do the dynamics and frequency range (with an especially satisfying mid-bass thump). The sound's smoothness in particular will not disappoint fans of these New Year's concerts.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa