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 Recording of the Week  New Year’s Concert from Vienna

It always seems to me that the (impressively speedy!) release of the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna is one of the most fortuitously-timed annual events in the classical recordings calendar. What better way to blow away that sluggish January feeling than with a couple of hours of glittering waltzes and polkas from an orchestra and conductor who have this music in their (Wiener) blood? (I’ll stay away from clichéd metaphors involving Sachertorte and champagne, but feel free to insert your own should you wish!)

Mariss Jansons
Mariss Jansons

The concerts from the Großer Saal of the Musikverein have been getting the musical year off to a flying start since 1939, and for the past three decades or so they’ve also been recorded and/or broadcast live – a real boon as tickets are like gold-dust: aspiring audience-members must pre-register a year in advance just to be entered into the ticket draw, and many Viennese families pass their subscription from one generation to the next like an heirloom!

The concerts have been entrusted to a different illustrious conductor each year since the mid-eighties, with Karajan, Abbado, Maazel and Muti all featuring on the roster. Maestro Jansons has taken up the baton once before, in 2006, and brings his characteristic poise and elegance to bear on the ‘Strauss Family and Friends’ programme to scintillating effect.

Though I had dipped into individual tracks to enliven the dark mornings last week, I did wonder as I sat down to review it whether two discs of the Strausses & Co. might be the aural equivalent of polishing off that last lurking box of Christmas continental chocolates in one fell swoop (bang goes my resolution to avoid food metaphors – my apologies!).

I needn’t have worried. The programme is so imaginatively planned, with fast-and-furious polkas acting as a palette-cleanser between the lush waltzes, that I was craving the second disc even before I’d finished the first! In addition, there are specific themes running through the programme which introduce several lesser-known works, some of which have never been programmed for a New Year’s Day concert before. The opening section includes two pieces written for the 1890 inaugural ball at the new Vienna Town Hall: Johann Strauss II’s Rathausballtanze (‘Town Hall Dances’, receiving its New Year’s Day premiere) and Carl Michael Ziehrer’s Wiener Burger (‘Viennese citizens’). The latter is so characterful and melodically memorable that I have to concur with the original audience in their assertion that Ziehrer was fit to rival Strauss II for the title of ‘Waltz-King’; the former, which reworks and melds fragments from the composer’s best-known waltzes and the Austrian National Anthem, beautifully encapsulates the concert’s balance of tradition and innovation and its capacity for fresh takes on familiar music.

There’s even a quirky little nod to the forthcoming London Olympics in the form of two short-and-sweet polkas: Johann Junior’s Albion-Polka was dedicated to Prince Albert, whilst Josef’s Jokey (Jockey)-Polka was written in tribute to the Prince Consort’s enthusiasm for riding (listen out for the startling whip-cracks!).

The second disc is largely made up of Old Favourites – the Thunder and Lightening Polka, Radetzky March and of course the Blue Danube all receive sparkling performances, which are all the more welcome after the slightly more unusual first disc with its teasing hints of things to come! Samples as usual on the CD link below.

BBC Music Magazine Awards Shortlist

January also brings the nominations for the annual BBC Music Magazine Awards. Perusing the shortlist on Friday, I was reminded of what an embarrassment of riches we were offered by the artists and labels in 2011, with repertoire ranging from Victoria to Steve Reich (and that’s just the choral category!) and already-legendary artists like Andreas Scholl sitting alongside newcomers such as Florian Boesch and Benjamin Grosvenor. We’re still pondering our decisions in the Presto office, but were pleased to see so many of our personal highlights of the year amongst the nominations: you may recall that we enthused about Agrippina, Billy Budd, Mr Grosvenor and Stutzmann’s Vivaldi disc in newsletters. As usual, we’ve created a special page for the Awards here where you can mull over your decisions before heading to BBC Music Magazine’s page to cast your vote – some tough choices to make!

New Year's Concert 2012 - CD

Vienna Philharmonic, Mariss Jansons

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

New Year's Concert 2012 - Blu-ray

enna Philharmonic, Mariss Jansons

Available Format: Blu-ray