Every year a different conductor is given the privilege to wave his baton in Vienna’s New Year’s Concert and to conjure up a champagne mood with the Vienna Philharmonic. Two of the most famous ones have been Riccardo Muti and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, both of whom left unique marks on the history of
Every year a different conductor is given the privilege to wave his baton in Vienna’s New Year’s Concert and to conjure up a champagne mood with the Vienna Philharmonic. Two of the most famous ones have been Riccardo Muti and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, both of whom left unique marks on the history of the concert. This release gathers together their appearances in 1997, 2000 and 2001 – with a Viennese lilt and a sparkling live atmosphere.
The World’s Most Successful Classical Concert
Vienna, 1 January, the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. Mention these details to any lover of classical music, and they will know at once what is meant here, for it is on this date and in this venue that the annual New Year’s Concert takes place in the Austrian capital, a concert which, broadcast to every corner of the earth, is the most widely watched classical music event of all.
“His popularity is altogether immeasurable: Strauß’s melodies may be heard in every part of the world,” the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote in 1884, referring to the legendary “Waltz King” Johann Strauß. And it is Strauß’s melodies – not just his waltzes but also his polkas, marches and overtures – that dominate the annual New Year’s Concert from Vienna. Listeners may be inclined to assume that this has always been the case and that Strauß and his waltz rhythms have invariably had pride of place in Austria’s principal temple to the arts. This would certainly be an attractive image from the days of the old Imperial and Royal Dual Monarchy, but it is an image that rests on an error.
According to a well-known witticism, it is necessary to be dead and buried to achieve immortality in Vienna. During their lives, neither Johann Strauß nor his famous father (likewise called Johann) nor his brothers, who also wrote music, nor even their colleagues could ever hope to be heard in the Musikverein, where it tended, rather, to be the music of Bruckner and Brahms that was performed. Even though their works were as popular and as successful as the albums of today’s leading pop stars, they were regarded as entertainment, and the Vienna Philharmonic did not play waltzes, only symphonies. This arrangement started to crumble when the Strauß Memorial was unveiled in Vienna’s Stadtpark in 1921. Eighteen years later the conductor Clemens Krauss hit on the idea of celebrating the new year by playing works by Strauß, although his inaugural concert was in fact held on 31 December. Not until 1941 was the tradition of performing the concert on the morning of New Year’s Day finally established. Since then, the concert has failed to take place on only a single occasion, 1945, the last New Year’s Day of the Second World War.
Krauss conducted the concerts until his death in 1954, when his role was taken over by one of the Vienna Philharmonic’s violinists, Willy Boskovsky. It was under Boskovsky’s aegis that the concerts were first broadcast on television and started to feature an interlude with the Vienna State Opera Ballet. Gradually the now famous rituals became set in stone: the programme is kept a closely guarded secret until the very last moment, while the encores begin with a polka and the Blue Danube Waltz, before the concert ends with the Radetzky March, during which the audience is encouraged to clap in time with the music.
After a period when the concerts were regularly conducted by Lorin Maazel, the task has devolved on a whole series of different conductors since 1986, each of them generally taking charge of the proceedings for only a year at a time. The question as to who may be invited to conduct the concert exercises the world of music just as surely as the question of how he fared. As a result many a maestro has openly admitted that he has felt a greater sense of respect and responsibility in advance of the New Year’s Concert than in the face of an operatic first night. After all, no music is more difficult to conduct than what is thought of as “light” music. And the audience, too, inevitably senses a greater or a lesser revolution, a point well illustrated by the different interpretations offered by Riccardo Muti and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Muti conducted the concerts in 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004 and has been closely associated with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera for decades, serving up his Viennese delicacies in the spirit of a solid tradition. (He is represented here by highlights from the 1997 and 2000 concerts.) By contrast, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was in charge in 2001 and 2003, is a man who began his career by conducting research into the original sound world of Baroque and Classical music and by rediscovering a forgotten repertory. By the 1980s, if not earlier, he had emerged from this niche and received what can only be described as a patent of nobility from the musical establishment – not that this prevented him from doing away with certain traditions associated with the New Year’s Concert, too. To launch the 2001 New Year’s Concert, for example, he programmed the Radetzky March by Johann Strauß the Father, which was heard for the first time on that occasion in its original form (represented here by the opening track). It had simply been overlooked that until then the work that traditionally ended the concert was an arrangement of a piece that recalls the legendary General Joseph Radetzky von Radetz. To end the 2001 New Year’s Concert the audience was then able to clap along with the traditional version of the piece (represented here by the final track of all).