By Jonathan Blumhofer
The VPO’s performance doesn’t want for energy or purpose because of the lack of a crowd. Rather, there seems to be an internal imperative to the ensemble’s music-making that isn’t always apparent at these events.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s (VPO) 2021 New Year’s Concert is that the event happened at all. Granted, it was a concert without an audience – the Musikverein’s Goldener Saal was closed to the public. Even so, could simply having the VPO on stage playing Strauss & Friends with Riccardo Muti be enough?
Given the circumstances, yes – and then some.
2021 marked Muti’s sixth time leading a Philharmonic New Year’s Concert and, while certain of his five prior appearances have been better than others, this one drew out a few of his conspicuous strengths.
For instance, I’ve rarely heard a performance of Franz von Suppé’s Dichter und Bauer Overture that sounds so clearly related to Verdi: richly blended, rhythmically taut, and smartly driving to the double-bar. Or a reading of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Kaiserwalzer that’s at once so expansive (lasting over thirteen minutes) yet so full of schwung.
Two of the program’s most familiar pieces, the waltzes Frühlingsstimmen and An der schönen, blauen Donau, are likewise striking. Maybe it’s the context of the times, maybe the season; or maybe something else is afoot. Regardless, Muti draws out playing from the VPO that’s lovely and refined, but also more reflective than usual. His approach to certain phrases – usually transitional ones: holding back before tumbling, full-bore, into the irresistible rhythms of the dance – serves to draw out the latent melancholy of this music.
Equally fine are the sequence of New Year’s Concert premieres. This year, there are seven: more than a third of the Concert’s total offerings.
True, they range a bit in quality and memorability, from Johann Jr.’s discursive waltz Schallwellen to Carl Millöcker’s spirited In Saus und Braus, Josef Strauss’s elegant Margherita-Polka, and Suppé’s peppy Fatinitza-Marsch.
But when everything comes together, sparks fly.
To be sure, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-played account of Carl Zeller’s unfailingly tuneful Grubenlichter-Waltzer than what the VPO delivers here. Just as stylish is their reading of Karel Komzák’s lush Bad’ner Madl’n, which positively drips warmth and character. Impish as ever, too, is Johann Strauss, Sr.’s Venetianer-Galopp, with rattling castanets leading the way.
The remainder of the program, if not quite as exalted in execution, is at least done with the attention to detail one expects from the VPO in this event.
The galopps and schnellpolkas – Niko, Ohne Sorgen, Stürmisch in Lieb und Tanz, and Furioso – are vigorous. The charming Im Krapfenwald’l dances amiably, as does the parade of tunes in Johann, Jr.’s jaunty Neue-Melodien Quadrille.
Certainly, it’s a bit odd to have an audience-less New Year’s Concert (though it is nice to hear the Radetzky March played without obnoxious clapping on the downbeats). But the VPO’s performance doesn’t want for energy or purpose because of the lack of a crowd. Rather, there seems to be an internal imperative to the ensemble’s music-making that isn’t always apparent at these events. Try and discern a reason for it, if you like; either way, it adds a more-than-welcome bit of spirit to this release.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.