2020 New Year's Concert (CD review)

Andris Nelsons, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 19439702402 (2-disc set).

As I've said many times before, I dislike albums recorded live. In the old days of live-audience recording, there was too much noise, shuffling of feet, rustling of programs, coughing and wheezing, and too much breathing, to say nothing of too much applause. But more recently we've gotten close-up recordings that mitigate many of these issues but then create problems of their own. Still, with these yearly New Year's Concerts from the Vienna Philharmonic, the whole business of its being live is, in fact, the point. These discs are mementos, souvenirs, of an event, and they are the exception to the rule.

As you probably know, in 1941 the Vienna Philharmonic began its custom of offering New Year's Concerts, 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. The New Year's 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, Gustavo Dudamel, Riccardo Muti, Christian Thielemann, and in 2020 it was Andris Nelsons.

Here's a rundown of the 2020 selections:

Disc 1:
  1. Carl Michael Ziehrer: Die Landstreicher: Ouvertüre
  2. Josef Strauss: Liebesgrüße, Walzer
  3. Josef Strauss: Liechtenstein-Marsch
  4. Johann Strauss II: Blumenfest-Polka
  5. Johann Strauss II: Wo die Zitronen blüh'n, Walzer
  6. Eduard Strauss: Knall und Fall, Polka schnell
  7. Franz von Suppe: Leichte Kavallerie: Ouvertüre
  8. Josef Strauss: Cupido, Polka française
  9. Johann Strauss II: Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Walzer
10. Eduard Strauss: Eisblume, Polka mazur
11. Josef Hellmesberger II: Gavotte

Disc 2:
  1. Hans Christian Lumbye: Postillon Galop
  2. Ludwig van Beethoven: 12 Contretänze
  3. Johann Strauss II: Freuet euch des Lebens, Walzer
  4. Johann Strauss II: Tritsch-Tratsch Polka
  5. Josef Strauss: Dynamiden, Walzer
  6. Josef Strauss: Im Fluge, Polka schnell
  7. New Year's Address
  8. Johann Strauss II: The Blue Danube, Waltz
  9. Johann Strauss I: Radetzky-Marsch

The first thing you may notice is that the selections this year, as they have been in most years, include several composers outside the Strauss family: Zeihrer, Suppe, Hellmesberger, Lumbye, and Beethoven. This helps break up the possible monotony of too much Strauss, of course, but the items Nelsons has selected are gems in their own right. They lighten the load, and they fit right into the Strauss milieu: the mood, the atmosphere, the tone of the music.

Andris Nelsons
More important, Nelsons fits right in with the music. It was not just a lucky coincidence that Nelsons was at the time of the recording the conductor of two of the world's leading orchestras--the Boston Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. With the opening Ziehrer overture, Nelsons gets straight into the spirit of things. The music is vigorous and happy. Then it's on to the Strausses and waltzes. Nelsons gives everything a healthy bounce; maybe too much for some Strauss fans, but certainly enthusiastic.

After that, it's on to marches and polkas before another waltz, "Where the Lemon Trees Blossom," which Nelsons provides with a sweet nuance. When Strauss premiered it, he called it "Bella Italia" ("Beautiful Italy") but for the printed edition renamed it. Whatever, Nelsons gives it a gentle, warmhearted interpretation.

Probably the highlight of the first disc for me was the reading Nelsons gives to Suppe's old warhorse, "Light Cavalry Overture." If you'll excuse the pun, it really does gallop along, with power and dash. It's quite the invigorating romp.

And so it goes, with Nelsons providing one of the best New Year's shows in a long time. I can only attribute his success to his attempt to create serious music with every selection rather than just play everything, the waltzes especially, as big, splashy show tunes. His may not be the most danceable waltzes ever performed, but they are among the most listenable.

Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and engineers Tobias Lehmann and Rene Moller of Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the concert live at the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins on January 1, 2020. As I said at the start: one should consider the album a memento of an event, not as an audiophile demo set. As a live recording, it displays the usual characteristics inherent to most such works today. It's fairly close up, with audience noise during the music at a minimum but still present. The sound is quite dynamic but spatially flat, so you find a big, wide, one-dimensional stage. Oddly, definition is on the soft side, kind of out of the ordinary for a live recording but welcome. Of course, you still get applause between each selection, but we expect that.

Incidentally, if the CD set isn't enough for you, the folks at Sony also offer it on DVD, Blu-ray, and vinyl. Sorry, no VHS, cassette, or 8-track tape available at this time.

JJP

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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa