Vienna Philharmonic: New Year's Concert 2016
A dog, we’re told, is not just for Christmas nor, in a great year, is Vienna’s New Year’s Day concert just for New Year’s Day. The 2016 concert under Mariss Jansons was just such a year.
I’ve always considered Johann Strauss the younger to be one of Austro-Hungary’s greatest composers, though as Strauss himself famously said of his younger brother Josef, ‘Pepi is the more gifted; I’m merely the more popular’. The Strausses were a rackety crew but their musical output was prodigious, which is why no fewer than eight of the 22 items in this lovingly assembled 75th-anniversary programme are new to the event. Not all the newcomers are by the Strauss family but all speak of the world whose air they breathed and culture they enriched.
Take the opening number, a 70th-birthday outing for Robert Stolz’s UNO-Marsch. Commissioned from this doyen of operetta conductors and indefatigable composer of light music for the inaugural meeting of the UN Security Council in London in 1946, the march comes straight from the heyday of Austro-Hungarian band music. Eat your heart out Carl Teike. It’s played with immense style and panache; and when the Schatz-Walzer follows, a ravishing medley of themes drawn by Johann II from his operetta Der Zigeunerbaron, one knows that God is in his heaven and all’s well with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Of this year’s debut pieces, the entr’acte from Johann Strauss’s rarely played Fürstin Ninetta is another buried gem. The operetta’s plot, involving a cross-dressing Russian princess and a Turkish hypnotist who gets mistaken for a mass-murderer, has its peculiarities but the intermezzo is a thing of special beauty.
Other New Year ‘firsts’ are a deft perpetuum mobile by Josef Hellmesberger, Emile Waldteufel’s affectionate take on Chabrier’s España and an extraordinarily sexy waltz by Carl Ziehrer whose Trio involves the gentlemen (and ladies) of the Philharmonic whistling to a harp accompaniment. Nor is this their only extracurricular contribution. Audible sighs are called for in Johann I’s charming Seufzer-Galopp.
The great masterpieces are strategically spread: Josef’s Sphärenklänge and Johann’s Kaiser-Walzer, its coda as rapt as I ever recall it. Josef’s exquisite polka mazur Die Libelle (‘The Dragonfly’) is also here ‘flitting lazily over harmonies that hardly stir in the summer heat’, as Edward Sackville-West once put it. Also by Josef is the second and best of the two numbers contributed by the Vienna Boys Choir, making one of their all too rare visits. If they seem a trifle restrained in their old party piece Sängerslust, their performance of Josef Strauss’s Auf Ferienreisen (‘On Vacation’) is a delight, with the orchestra joining the boys in their hats-in-the-air whoops of joy.
Old favourites such as the quick polka Im Sturmschritt or the Blue Danube itself exhibit all the hallmarks of this great orchestra playing under a musician and conductor (the two are not always synonymous) it rightly loves and reveres. Here is music and music-making in which elegance, dash and lightness of spirit sit side by side with pools of emotional quiet which can haunt the mind for days to come.