2018 New Year's Concert (CD review)

Riccardo Muti, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88985477002 (2-disc set).

Usually, I dislike albums recorded live. Too much noise, too much applause and shuffling of feet and rustling of programs, too much coughing and wheezing, too much breathing, and often too closely recorded. But with these yearly New Year's Concerts from the Vienna Philharmonic, the whole business of its being live is, in fact, the point. This year, we have Riccardo Muti back to conduct.

As I'm sure you are aware, the Vienna Philharmonic began its custom of offering a New Year's Concert in 1941, and it hasn't changed much since. EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and now Sony are among the companies that have recorded the VPO's concerts over the stereo years, and in keeping with the orchestra's tradition of having no permanent conductor, they invite a different maestro to perform the New Year's duties each year. These conductors in recent times have included some of the biggest names in the business, including Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Franz Welser-Most, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, and Gustavo Dudamel. Riccardo Muti had already conducted several New Year's Concerts (1993, 1997, 2000, 2004), so he was no stranger to the 2018 affair.

Maybe Riccardo Muti doesn't quite reach the same incandescence as a Boskovsky or Karajan in his Strauss material. However, he's been doing it long enough that he knows what it's all about. Muti fills 2018's program with mainly numbers from the Strausses (Josef, Johann I, and Johann II), with only a couple of things outside the family from Franz von Suppe ("Boccaccio Overture") and Alfons Czibulka ("Stephanie Gavotte"), both numbers new to the concert series. Otherwise, the selections comprise the familiar ("Myrtle Blossoms Waltz," "Tales from the Vienna Woods," "Roses from the South," etc.) and the maybe not as familiar ("Viennese Frescoes," "Maria Waltz," "Letter to the Editor Polka," etc.). And, needless to say, the program concludes with "The Blue Danube Waltz" and the "Radetzky March," the latter complete with requisite audience participation. Here's the complete lineup of tunes:

Disc 1:
  1. The Gypsy Baron March
  2. Viennese Frescoes Waltz
  3. Bridal Parade Polka
  4. Light of Heart Polka
  5. Maria Waltz
  6. Wilhelm Tell Galopp
  7. Boccaccio Overture
  8. Myrtle Blossoms Waltz
  9. Stephanie-Gavotte

Disc 2:
  1. Magic Bullets Polka
  2. Tales from the Vienna Woods
  3. Festival March
  4. Town and Country Polka
  5. A Masked Ball Quadrille
  6. Roses from the South Waltz
  7. Letter to the Editor Polka
  8. Thunder and Lightning Polka
  9. New Year's Address
10. The Blue Danube Waltz
11. Radetzky March

Riccardo Muti
Of course, there were high points for me: "Viennese Frescoes" sounds lovely after an extended introduction; the "Bridal Parade" Polka is bouncy without being brash or showy; Muti shows his flair for Viennese rhythms in the "Maria Waltz"; the "Myrtle Blossoms Waltz" is sweet and light; an always welcome "Tales from the Vienna Woods," is done up most delicately; and then there's a fragrant "Roses from the South Waltz"; a particularly well-nuanced "Blue Danube Waltz"; and a rousing close with the required "Radetzky March."

The only minor shortcoming I could find was the lack of track timings for any of the selections. It's nice to know how long things are, you know? That and the fact that I wish there were fewer polkas and marches and more waltzes are merely personal biases of mine.

Recording Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and Balance Engineers Tobias Lehmann and Rene Moller recorded the music live for Teldex Studio Berlin at the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins on January 1, 2018. The same team has been doing the recording of New Year's concerts for the past half dozen or more years, so we know pretty much what to expect.

Although they recorded the music live, the sound isn't so close-up as to be disturbing, nor is it too very bright or forward. As before, it conveys a pleasant, ambient glow. It also displays a fairly strong dynamic range and impact, noticeable right from the outset. The sound is not the ultimate in audiophile realism, of course, and there's not a lot of depth or air to it, but it is smooth and comfortable. Expect as always, however, a good deal of applause after each number. That, people tell me, is part of the fun.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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