, May 2009
After the 25 years during which these Vienna New Year’s concerts were directed by Willi Boskovsky, the present policy is to have a different conductor each year. Some have been an immense success – especially Karajan in 1987 and Carlos Kleiber in 1989 and 1992, some have made an interesting change, and some have been little more than indifferent, although the magical playing of the orchestra has tended to disguise this. The choice of Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 2003 might have been expected to result in an interesting change, but what actually emerged was perhaps not such a change but was one of the great successes of the series.
Before he became a conductor, Harnoncourt had been a member of the orchestra. He had played under such eminent conductors as Clemens Krauss who really knew how to make the most of this music. Earlier as a boy he had heard his father playing a wide variety of light music including that of the Strauss family. It should be no surprise therefore that the performances here are above all idiomatic. Arguably it would be hard to make this orchestra play this music any other way, but he sounds at all times to be encouraging them to bring out the dance character of each of the pieces without ever losing sight of the underlying poetry that so many have, especially for example in Josef Strauss’ “Delirien” and Johann’s “Krönungs-Lieder” and “Kaiser-Walzer”. The subtlety with which the dance rhythms are played is a joy throughout, as is the lack of the self-consciousness and heaviness which has afflicted some more recent conductors of these concerts.
I have known the CDs of this concert for many years, and although I vaguely remember the original television broadcast I had forgotten how enjoyable it was in this case to be able to see as well as hear what is going on. Admittedly as usual with these concerts it is best to ignore the audience for many of whom this seems more a social than a musical occasion and show a remarkable lack of evident enjoyment, but the sight of the orchestra—or most of them, anyway—apparently relishing the music, and of Harnoncourt’s piercing gaze on them more than makes up for this. The packaging states that this is “The Director’s Cut by Brian Large”, but no more information is given about the significance of this. One obvious change between this and the original broadcast is that most of the usual ballet or other inserted sequences are now included as part of the Special Features rather than as part of the concert itself. Thus five items are included twice, once as seen in the concert hall, and once with pictures of the Danube, Schönbrunn or Heilbrunn Palace or with dancing by the Vienna State Opera Ballet soloists or the St Petersburg Kirov Ballet. Whilst these may not amount to great ballet they are enjoyable and worth seeing occasionally even if in general my personal preference is to stick with the concert as seen by the audience. Apart from these items I am unclear what changes have been made for this version. The direction is blessedly unobtrusive and sensible in what is shown, although personally I do not care for shots of the orchestra from directly above, but they too are magical if you do not suffer from vertigo. Whatever re-editing there is has evidently been done with great sensitivity.
As usual the programme is a mixture of the well-known and less well-known. Surprisingly this was the first time that the Weber had been included. It goes with terrific panache in the middle section and great poetry at the start and finish. Unusually no one in the audience starts to applaud prematurely, unless this is one of the benefits of re-editing. Interestingly the Brahms dances are played in unpublished but very effective orchestrations by Friedrich Reichart (1838–1889) found in the archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.
Whilst I admit that this DVD adds nothing musically to what is heard on the CDs, there is a special pleasure in being able to see this concert. For what it is worth it also answers unimportant but interesting questions like how many women were in the orchestra at the time and whether the violins were indeed split on either side of the platform. The answers are two and yes. But the real point of owning this DVD is to be able to see and hear such wonderful musicians playing such marvellous music, and it fulfils that purpose admirably.