If you’re a double-bassist or violist, the idea of a New Year’s concert of Strauss waltzes might well give you a case of the screaming habdabs. Millions of bars of ‘oom’ (bass) and ‘pah-pah’ (viola), while the other instruments get to have fun, can indeed be a kind of torture in most orchestras. But then most orchestras are not the Vienna Philharmonic, and most conductors aren’t Herbert von Karajan – and when those two titanic forces met for a legendary New Year’s Day concert of Strauss works in 1987, every ‘oom’ and every ‘pah-pah’ sounded like magic. Thirty-four years on the magic is as vivid as ever.
What made it special?
The most important factor is that Herbert von Karajan takes the music seriously, and there’s not a moment when he goes into ‘oom-pah-pah’ autopilot. But also – and it’s wonderful to hear in a conductor with such a reputation for Austro-German seriousness – he has fun. He pulls the tempi about, and keeps it lively and dance-like. It’s sensuously playful in a way that only Austrians seem to be able to manage. Try this gorgeous account of ‘The Blue Danube,’ performed as an encore, to get a taste of the event – and marvel at the accuracy of the idiosyncratic ‘Vienna rhythm,’ in which a teeny-tiny emphasis is put on the first of the ‘pahs’ in the ‘oom-pah-pah.’
My toes are tapping already. Anything else?
The players clearly relish their relationship with the conductor. They’re enjoying themselves as much as he is (yes, even the double basses), and it gives their well-polished sound an extra sparkle.
But this must have been one of hundreds of New Year concerts they made together, surely?
Amazingly, no. Since 1939, only a handful of conductors had ever taken the helm of the Vienna New Year’s Concerts: first Clemens Kraus, then concertmaster Willi Boskovsky, and then Lorin Maazel. In 1987, the orchestra decided to shake things up completely, and from that time forward, they planned to invite a different conductor every year. The first choice to kick off the new system was Herbert von Karajan, who had a well-known love for the music of all the Strauss family. He was also somewhat frail by this time (he was 79, and not in the best of health), so it was important to book him while he was still available. He never conducted another similar concert, and died in July 1989. It’s obvious from the sound how pleased the players were to be with him.
But didn’t I read something about some problems? Some acrimony with the players?
What a Grinch! To bring that up on New Year’s Day, when everybody’s syne should be both auld and lang. But yes, there were problems around this time with Karajan’s main orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he’d been principal conductor since 1956. They were complaining in public that they found him too autocratic: some even used the word ‘fascist’. It was all a bit bloody. Perhaps the players of the rival Vienna Philharmonic were pouring balm onto his wounds, and giving him an extra boost to show their loyalty.
And even Kathleen Battle was on her best behavior?
Ah, you know of her reputation, I see. Battle was so notoriously bad-tempered that some of her colleagues once made T-shirts with the logo ‘I Survived the Battle’ when she was fired from New York’s Metropolitan Opera for ‘unprofessional actions.’ A total diva, to put it politely. But in ‘Voices Of Spring’, she shows how she got to the top of her game before she jumped off into the abyss of diva-dom. Lusciously clear singing, perfect coloratura, a real sense of verve and vim. It all adds an extra sparkle to the flute of champagne.
I wish I’d been there
On top of everything else, Karajan’s New Year’s Concert is an ear-opener for those who are familiar with only the works of the most famous member of the waltz family: Johann (‘Danube’) Strauss II. It’s true that his waltzes and polkas make up the bulk of the programme, but there are terrific works from his brother Josef and their father, Johann Strauss I as well. Johann II said of his brother: “Josef is the more gifted of us two; I am merely the more popular.” To send you away with a grin, let’s finish with Josef’s giddy ‘Without A Care’ Polka, which requires the members of the orchestra to perform in quite unexpected ways. What a hoot.