Last year it was Riccardo Muti, it’s Andris Nelsons in 2020; meanwhile Christian Thielemann got the vote to preside over the Vienna Philharmonic’s 2019 New Year’s Concert: a time-honoured affair. Once again Sony Classical has rushed-released the event for our pleasure, yet – a dissenting voice is now to be heard – for the umpteenth time the concert’s halves are not split between the discs as they happened, and it’s about time someone at Sony explained this continuing bizarre decision to re-write history, even more so when the halves fit easily the respective CDs; the longer Part Two here takes just over seventy-eight minutes.
The good news, and there is no further bad, is that Thielemann conducted this Strauss Family and acolytes programme with total sympathy, and of course the Vienna Phil is sine qua non to illuminate this delightful repertoire.
The first six items were the concert’s opening half, Carl Ziehrer’s Schönfeld-Marsch the jaunty striding-forth welcome, cueing a smile and also indicating excellent sound quality. There follows Josef Strauss’s Transactionen-Walzer, typically eloquent, music with a generous soul, played richly. Then Josef Hellmesberger II’s Elfenreigen, spooky outer sections and a tender-hearted centre, to which Johann Strauss II’s Expreß is an exhilarating riposte, and his Nordseebilder-Walzer is a pictorial gem, with a little bit of bass-drum rough-sea suggestiveness in the scoring, and plenty of swirling ball-gowns. The first half ends with Eduard Strauss’s Mit Extrapost, another uplifting fast polka; race you to the bar for an interval drink.
We should now be switching to the other disc for an uninterrupted second half – but, no – so it’s onwards with the Overture to Der Zigeunerbaron (one of my faves, that and the Kaiser-Walzer, the emperor of waltzes), plenty of paprika-enhanced enchantment, seductive lyricism, passionate allegros and a celebrated waltz-tune. Perhaps the strangest number here is the also-endearing Der Tänzerin (a French Polka), Josef Strauss’s sometimes-curious harmonies (drunken dancer?) cueing an immediate encore (from me). Two items from Johann II follow, Künstlerleben-Walzer – in the pantheon of great art (I think it was this opus that so attracted Brahms) – given con amore here and with vibrancy, and then Die Bajadere, a further quickstep in the form of a Polka and which breezes along with a cheeky grin.
As Sony’s plan has it, disc two begins with Eduard’s Opern-Soirée, a gentle dance in the French manner, and continues with two extracts from Johann II’s Ritter Pásmán (an opera), Eva-Walzer, signalled by sonorous horns, sweet melodies and gentle pirouetting following, and then the Csárdás, bewitching at first, then plenty of vigorous strides. Johann II holds his place for the exotic Egyptischer-Marsch, shoulders swaying rather than left-right and also a lusty Vienna Phil sing-along, and then Hellmesberger returns for Entr’acte-Valse [sic], a dainty bonbon, followed by Johann II’s Lob der Frauen, an elegant Polka mazur In Praise of Women.
The advertised programme concluded with another of Josef’s superlative Waltzes, Sphärenklänge, of mystery and magnanimous twirls, Thielemann lingering with affection and, at one point, with a sudden softening when the reverse is expected, not only persuasive but curiously poignant. As for the extras, the first is the very fast, very bouncy Im Sturmschritt (Johann II) and you know the rest – the usual suspects, think a certain Blue river (Thielemann turns its corners judiciously) and Radetzky (perfectly paced, piccolo prominent) – plus a turn-of-year greeting from the conductor.
I was going to knock a star off for Sony’s presentation, but the music, performances and reproduction really are top-notch. In addition to these CDs, Sony’s release embraces DVD, Blu-ray and vinyl.