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