Review - New Year's Day Concert from Vienna

Susan Omand indulges in the AlbieMedia annual tradition of watching the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna...

OK, I’ll admit it, I’m watching this on BBC iPlayer this year (it’s available til the end of the month if you want to watch along) as I didn’t have time to catch it live, however it’s still the full concert rather than the edited highlights, so there’s a good two and a half hours of arm-waving (is air conducting a thing?) ahead of me.

This year’s concert again comes from the opulent surroundings of the Golden Hall in the Musikverein in Vienna, where the Vienna Philharmonic find themselves, for the fifth time, under the watchful eye of conductor Riccardo Mutti. Mutti has particularly close ties to the Vienna Philharmonic and has appeared with the orchestra at the Salzburg Festival on a regular basis since 1971. When he conducted the orchestra’s 150th anniversary concert in 1992, he was presented with its Golden Ring, a special sign of esteem and affection, awarded only to a few select conductors. He conducted the prestigious and extremely famous New Year’s Concert in Vienna previously in 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004. This year sees the continuous collaboration between Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic reach 48 years so it is appropriate that he should wield the baton for them again.

On the published programme we are promised waltzes, polkas and more so let’s dive in and go “track by track” as usual.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Entrance March from the Operetta "The Gypsy Baron"

A regal start that evolves into a bright march with good strong military percussion but still managing to sound “like Strauss” with a light, deft touch overlaying woodwind and brass to the cheerful strings.

Josef Strauss
Wiener Fresken (Viennese Frescos), Waltz, op. 249

Something much more sedate now with an almost sombre feel to the beautifully atmospheric cello (soloist Robert Nodge) until it settles into a more recognisable waltz lilt and we get a look at the wonderful architecture of the Austrian National Library and some of the paintings on the walls and ceilings of the interior, the frescos mentioned in the title of this waltz. It really is a stunning building and its Literature Museum looks like the kind of place I could get lost in for days. Back to the music though and the tone perks up considerable from the melancholic start to a dramatic finish.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Brautschau (Bridal Parade), Polka, op. 417

Another change of pace and a polka. I love the chirpy bird noises that the flute drops in, echoed later by the lower woodwind. Nice use too of pizzicato cellos to not overpower the lightness.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Leichtes Blut (Light of Heart), Fast Polka, op. 319

Another polka and even faster than the last, it goes at a rattling pace, as seen by the manic snare drummer, but still maintains an elegance with flowing strings until a crescendo that is guaranteed to wake you up if you’ve been snoozing. As an aside, apparently this was written for the 1867 carnival season, for which he also wrote The Blue Danube. There, see, you’ve learned something.

Johann Strauss, sen.
Marienwalzer (Marie Waltz), op. 212

From son to father and a great musical rivalry although their styles are markedly different. There’s much more richness to this waltz and it’s almost filmic in some passages (even though film wasn’t invented yet) with its ability to build mental pictures that would do justice to any of the 1940’s MGM classics. A lovely use of harp and bassoon too in the orchestration.

Johann Strauss, sen.
William Tell Galop, op. 29b

You know you’re cultured if you don’t think of The Lone Ranger with this very well known tune (yes, of course I did). A superb brass intro leads the rest of the orchestra in and we do indeed gallop to the end of the first half of the concert.

An interval side-track for those of us watching on BBC Two (or iPlayer as I am) and a look at a century of Viennese Modernism for the next 25 minutes, featuring buildings such as the Austrian Savings Bank, with its deco themes, set to the music of a trio, harp, flute and violin, although we are not told until the end of the programme what the music is, which is a pity as I enjoyed its atonality of this piece and couldn’t work out which one it was. A change of trio and a change of location as we look at Wagner’s Urban Railway Pavilion and the urban light railway, with three flautists providing a pentatonic (five note scale – basically the black notes on a keyboard) backing. Another of Wagner’s locations, this time residential buildings with highly ornate frontages in a colourful Art Nouveau style and a very French sounding accordion providing the backdrop. Out of the city, we find Wagner’s Steinhoff Church and the severe lines and strong shapes of the exterior provide an austerity to what is, usually, an opulent building, although the interior is light and airy as we see the stained glass work of Koloman Moser to the background of a brass quartet. Looking round the interior, shades of that other well-known Austrian Modernist, Gustav Klimt, can be seen in the colouring and gilding of the panels and frescoes. The classical architecture of the Imperial and Royal Bank is next, with a quintet of strings in the sweeping stairs and colonnaded atrium. The baroque glory of the Belvedere Museum in next, contrasting with the modernist artwork of Broncia Koller-Pinell and the well known works of Klimt. A quick skim past a flautist outside Wagners Club House and the Schemerl Bridge with accordion and strings to finish outside the Leopold Museum and Egon Schielle’s art. All very nice and an adequate way to fill the time while those actually at the concert get a drink at the bar and go for a pee. To be honest though, I would have preferred, if we are going to get a documentary tour, to actually have a commentary so that we might find out about the works and the creators rather than having a shoe-horned in “Brief Encounters” type arty love-story played out in the various locations to unknown musak as the “reason” for showing them.

Anyway, back to our “reason” for watching - the concert in the Golden Hall.

Franz von Suppé
Overture to "Boccaccio"

And we return with a side-step away from the Strausses with a Dalmatian. No, really, von Suppe was from Dalmatia. There’s a real rise and fall in both volume and tempo of this piece, as you would expect from an Overture which is pretty much an amalgamation of the musical themes and snippets from the rest of an opera. Think of an overture as a “coming up this episode” but in music.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Myrthenblüten (Myrtle Blossoms), Waltz, op. 395

Back to Strauss Jr and a flowery piece written for the 1881 wedding of Crown Prince Rudolph. The harp intro is very redolent of dreamlike wedding music and it does have that feel of a piece that would be played in the background while people are standing around waiting for the happy couple. Indeed we are treated to a look at pieces and processes from the Porcelain Museum to accompany the music so it’s very much a piece to “go with” something else rather than stand on its own.

Alphons Czibulka
Stephanie Gavotte, op. 312

A composer I hadn’t heard of before now and a visit back to Otto Wagner’s railway pavilion for a bit of ballet. As you do. This is a light and pretty piece with strings providing a walking tempo underneath a melodic woodwind. However I’m going to take this chance here to do my annual whinge with this concert and the fact that they seem to think watching the conductor and the orchestra are “not interesting enough” telly so they introduce dancers, or pottery, or architecture, which is lovely but, for me, distracts from the music itself pushing it into the background. I found it especially noticeable here because, as I said, this was a new composer to me and I wanted to see how the piece was orchestrated and watch how the maestro conducted a gavotte, as they have a long upbeat and should have been interesting to watch being played. Anyhow, I know I complain about that every year and I will probably continue to do so because it’s likely only me that gets annoyed about it. Back to Strauss.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Freikugeln (Magic Bullets), Fast Polka, op. 326

They say this is a fast polka and, boy, is it! Not one I’d like to have to dance to. Lots of short sharp reports in the notes, like the bullets in the title along with the odd cannon-like percussive boom from the timpani. Interestingly it was actually written for a shooting contest 150 years ago.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Tales from the Vienna Woods, Waltz, op. 325

The Austrian zither, literally and figuratively, takes centre stage for this piece. It starts with a clarinet though and builds through the orchestra for the first section, the second bit is a lot slower with flutes introducing the zither solo, played by Barbara Laister-Ebner. If you have heard the well known film theme to The Third Man, by the way, you’ve heard what a zither sounds like, it’s that tinny stringed instrument that sounds like a music box. The rest of the work is also a recognisable piece being quite popular as a waltz work in its own right with a snare adding quite a militaristic air hitting the first beat of the bar making a slow march out of each triplet. We end with the beautiful sound of the zither again before a full orchestral crescendo.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Fest-Marsch (Festival March), op. 452

Another wedding march, this time written for the Tsar of Bulgaria, and it sounds suitably regal with an “ask and answer” section between the woodwind and brass sections underpinned by the strings and the brass stays to the fore throughout the rest of the work, giving it a marching band style.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Stadt und Land (Town and Country), Polka Mazurka, op. 322

The mazurka has an interesting rhythm being a ¾ time in the same way that a waltz is but with the accents on the second and third beat rather than on the first and third as in the waltz. This gives it an unbalanced feel, in the same way, I guess that reggae feels unbalanced to rock music. This difference is well emphasised here with a woodblock and snare marking the accents as the tune lilts over the top.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Un ballo in maschera (Masked Ball), Quadrille, op. 272

Another tune, another difference in rhythm and the grammatical annoyance that a quadrille has five parts to it as a dance, although the quad refers to the fact it is related to a square dance or reel with 4 couples. Listening to it, the 5 parts are indeed all separate, with abrupt changes in tempo and style, although they all seem to have a theme that carries throughout.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Rosen aus dem Süden (Roses from the South), Waltz, op. 388

More of the Vienna State ballet, but at least it is an incredibly well known melody so it’s not quite so distracting.... ok I take that back – the red, orange, pink and gold velour suits (with matching shoes) are somewhat distracting and not for the reasons one might think (it’s like watching a load of dancing theatre seats). Anyway. Concentrating on the music, as I said, it’s a melody you will know if you have heard a Strauss waltz at all as it is one of his most famous.

Josef Strauss
Eingesendet (Letters to the Editor), Fast Polka, op. 240

No this isn’t your chance to complain about the review, that’s what the final (non-encore) piece is called – Letters to the Editor. Written for the ball held in 1868 by Concordia, the Society of Journalists and Writers in Vienna, it is a sideways swipe by Strauss by highlighting the bit of the newspaper that has always involved least work by the Journalists – the Letters page! And, from the sounds of it, the letter writer is complaining about something as this belts on at a furious pace. You can just about hear the “why oh why oh why” (in Austrian of course) in the staccato phrasing. 

That brings the publicly billed concert to an end but, of course, they are by no means finished. First up in the encore is:

Johann Strauss Jr

Unter Donner und Blitz, Fast Polka, op. 324

The aptly named Thunder and Lightning polka with the rolling bass drum providing the atmospheric thunder and clashing cymbals the lightning as the rest of the orchestra rains a storm of splashing sound over the percussion.

Johann Strauss Jr

An der shӧnen blauen Donau (By the beautiful Blue Danube), Waltz, op 314

The first of the now traditional encore pieces with the very famous Blue Danube waltz and, as ever, shivering strings provide the backdrop to sparkling woodwind as the river winds its way lazily along, getting wider and deeper as the rest of the orchestra picks up.

And finally... no New Year’s Day concert would be complete without the clapalong to Johann Strauss the elder’s Radetzky-Marsch op228

And that’s it! All over and done with for another year. I have to make mention of the stamina needed though by both musicians and conductors as a straight 2 and a half hours of conducting does wonders for the bingo wings but leaves you (as we say in Scotland) fair wabbit. So that's enough arm waving exercise for me for this year then, see you next January.

Images - ©_Terry_Linke for the Vienna Philharmonic
Karlsplatz - Photo: ORF/Riha Film
Ballet - Photo: Thomas Jantzen