sun 17/01/2021

Vienna New Year’s Day Concert, BBC Two/Radio 3 review - noble integrity and missionary zeal | reviews, news & interviews

Vienna New Year’s Day Concert, BBC Two/Radio 3 review - noble integrity and missionary zeal

Vienna New Year’s Day Concert, BBC Two/Radio 3 review - noble integrity and missionary zeal

Riccardo Muti brings aristocratic melancholy to a surprisingly moving, audienceless ritual

The Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Muti in an otherwise empty MusikvereinsaalORF

“Without a care” (Ohne Sorgen, the title of a fast polka by Josef Strauss performed here with deadpan sung laughs from the players) was never going to be the motto of a Vienna Philharmonic concert without an audience. Introspection and even sadness seemed frequent companions in the interesting New Year’s Day bill of fare.

“Without a care” (Ohne Sorgen, the title of a fast polka by Josef Strauss performed here with deadpan sung laughs from the players) was never going to be the motto of a Vienna Philharmonic concert without an audience. Introspection and even sadness seemed frequent companions in the interesting New Year’s Day bill of fare. Switching on BBC Radio 3 yesterday morning without prior knowledge of works or conductor, what I heard – one of nine unfamiliar items on the programme – were dark-hued, oaky waltz strains, clearly under the sway of a master. This was Johann Strauss the Younger’s Schallwellen (“Sound Waves”) Waltz conducted by Riccardo Muti, 80 next July, in his sixth First of January appearance at the Musikvereinsaal over 50 years’ association with the orchestra.

It sounded as if there were spacing-out on the platform. When I watched the whole thing later on BBC Two, that turned out not to be the case; unlike in the UK, string players were even sharing stands. How so? Because they are all Covid-tested every day. But why do, or watch, a New Year’s Day Concert without the give-and-take of orchestra and audience (top price, had there been one, 1200 Euros)? From my perspective, because an Austrian orchestra featuring players from all over the world, and conducted by an Italian, seemed like essential viewing and listening on the morning after the UK’s wretched departure from the European Union. Vienna-centric Franz von Suppe, whose Fatinitza March opened the first half and his Poet and Peasant Overture, much of it sounding like early Verdi, the second, was Dalmatian (for which now read Croatian) born, Belgian and Italian by descent. Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna PhilharmonicInevitably in part a showcase for the conservative, tradition-oriented side of the Austrians, with its nostalgia for k.k./k.u.k imperialism, the event in this of all years became something bigger. As Muti put it in a moving speech before the traditional New Year greeting from the whole orchestra, music is not mere entertainment or a profession, but a mission, to make society better. Would all political leaders around the world take note, he asked? We’ll see.

Muti was also right to talk about the “joy and sadness, life and death” even in a work as familiar as On the Beautiful Blue Danube. After that speech, this, the traditional encore, began as a new dawn (the misty prelude with the horns prefiguring the melody), while careful dynamics and ritenutos brought out more pathos than I’ve ever heard in the waltz. Same, too, for the main strain in the Emperor Waltz, at odds with the kitsch accoutrements of the imperial apartments shown as part of the visual publicity for the city.

At least we also got the background of the Loos Haus (astonishingly modern for 1910-11) for the first of the conventional appearances by dancers from the Vienna Opera Ballet, filmed in late summer when the house came briefly out of lockdown and admitted audiences. It would have been amusing to have an Esther Williams-style water ballet in the 1920s thermal baths of Baden bei Wien to accompany the brash, fun Girls of Baden Waltz with its saucy-prancings opening, by Bohemian-born Karel Komzák the Younger (1850-1905  - ever heard of him? I hadn’t). As it was, we just got pretty footage of the spa town, not to be confused with Baden-Baden in Germany; next time the BBC’s Petroc Trelawny manages to get to Vienna for his annual presentation, he needs to take the long tram journey there for an out of season visit. Muti and the Vienna PhilharmonicOther rarities on the programme, good for Viennese-music trainspotters but worthwhile in their own right, were Zeller’s attractive Grubenlichter Waltz – allowing Trelawny to hint at his Cornish roots, since the light/lamp in question was invented by Penzance-born Humphry Davy, Millöcker’s In Saus und Braus (“Living It Up”) Galop, Josef Strauss’s Niko Polka – composed for Pavlovsk outside St Petersburg, with a dark Russian folk-strain and a quiet ending – and J Strauss II’s New Melodies Quadrille (name the Italian opera transformations – I got nine). Novelty noises were kept to a minimum, for the good reason of yielding no audience laughs, but it’s always a pleasure to hear the cuckoo in the Im Krapfenwald’l Polka, with his naughty upside down ‘oo-cuck” come the refrain.

It was a pleasure, too, to hear the Radetzky March without the awful attempts at clapping along - and the Blue Danube introduction without the knowing ripple of applause that usually greets it. Applause nevertheless flooded in at both official ends of the uneven halves, relayed to the musicians through speakers in the Musikverein, from the 90 countries getting the livestream. Muti got his splendid results with an ethos of "less is more" - not everything needed to be conducted, and there were only a few attempts at podium jollity, not his natural sphere. It looked traditionally delicious as ever, with flowers provided by Vienna’s municipality park-keepers, and - contrary what the above image suggests -more women in the orchestra than before, including four vivaciously responsive first violinists on the back desk. Still, I’ll fully remove my hat when they finally invite Lithuanian Tanzmeisterin Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla to conduct.

Muti was right to talk about the 'joy and sadness, life and death' even in a work as familiar as 'On the Beautiful Blue Danube'

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

Actually, if and when the VPO invites a maestra to conduct this concert, it might be more likely to be Joana Mallwitz, if the buzz after her Salzburg 'Cosi fan tutte' last summer is anything to go by. Neither JM nor MG-T has conducted the VPO on subscription concerts yet, of course, so first things first.

Maybe in another 30 years; time, at the VPOs slow rate of evolution...Good Mozart opera isn't necessarily a guarantee of good dance conducting...

Sorry, under-caffeinated morning key hitting (and not): years' and VPO's.

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