Recording of the Week New Year's Concert 2014
For 75 years now, the gilded hall of the Musikverein’s Großer Saal in Vienna has played host to the first major classical music event of the year – the traditional New Year’s Day programme of waltzes, polkas and marches from the Strauss Family and friends, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. The concert has been broadcast live for much of its history, reaching an estimated 50 million people last year – a real boon, since tickets for the event itself are literally down to the luck of the draw via the orchestra’s online lottery. (We’ve just missed the boat for 2015, alas – registration closed on 23rd January!).
Happily, official recordings are usually turned around very quickly and this year Sony have released the concert in DVD and Blu-ray as well as the usual CD (the deluxe version comes with a beautiful souvenir programme of the event, full of insights into the programme choices despite some slightly idiosyncratic English!). The DVD is astutely filmed, combining orchestral close-ups and panoramas with scenic montages of Vienna for some numbers, as well as the chance to see Vivienne Westwood’s flamboyant costumes for the dancers in all their glory!
Since the late eighties, the New Year baton has passed to a different conductor each year, with alumni including such illustrious figures as Abbado, Kleiber and Karajan, and this year’s choice holds particular significance as Europe prepares to mark the centenary of the First World War: Daniel Barenboim is not only a legendary pianist and conductor but also an acclaimed ambassador for peace and cultural dialogue, most notably in his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which he co-founded with Edward Said to promote understanding between Israeli and Palestinian musicians.
The themes of reconciliation, empathy and peace are subtly in evidence throughout the first part of the programme: after a rollicking curtain-opener in the form of Eduard Strauss’s quadrille on themes from Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène we hear the first of the New Year’s Day Concert premieres, Josef Strauss’s serene Friedenspalmen (Palms of Peace) and a little later comes Johann II’s waltz Seid umschlungen, Millionen, which takes its title from Schiller’s great ode to universal brotherhood, famously set by Beethoven in the finale of the Ninth Symphony.
The inclusion of the younger Johann Strauss’s Egyptian March also provides a gentle nod to Barenboim’s work in the Middle East (some lusty vocal interjections from the orchestra here – top marks to the violinist who managed to sing and play without missing a beat!).
Despite his associations with more heavyweight Austrian composers, Barenboim never overplays his hand and has the idiom absolutely off-pat. He conducts everything from memory, with minimal intervention but total involvement: the orchestra have this music in their bones (so much so that the famous Radetzky March literally plays itself as Barenboim wanders through the orchestra shaking hands with each player at the end of the concert), but he shapes and paces things quite beautifully, revealing all sorts of detail and preventing things from ever becoming too bombastic or four-square.
The real highlight, for me, was the brief but spellbinding tribute to the one Strauss who’s usually absent from the feast: Richard (no relation to the rest of the gang), whose 150th anniversary falls this year. The burnished ‘Moonlight Music’ from Capriccio receives a luminous reading, with an absolutely flawless (and, believe me, it isn’t in every live performance!) horn solo; Barenboim is on home turf here, having recorded most of Strauss’s major orchestral works, and he conjures precisely the right atmosphere of bittersweet nostalgia. Magical: I hope we'll hear more from him as the year’s Strauss celebrations continue.
Wiener Philharmoniker, Daniel Barenboim This concert is also available on
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