A sublime, life-enhancing, New Year’s Day Concert 2021 from Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic

AustriaAustria New Year’s Day Concert 2021 (without audience): Vienna Philharmonic / Riccardo Muti (conductor). Broadcast (directed by Henning Kasten) from the Golden Hall, Musikverein, Vienna, 1.1.2021. (JPr)

Riccardo Muti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic

Franz von Suppè –
Fatinitza March; Overture to ‘Poet and Peasant’
Johann Strauss II – Schallwellen (Sound Waves), Op.148; Niko Polka, Op.228; Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring), Op.410; In the Krapfenwaldl, Op.336; New Melodies Quadrille. Op.254; Emperor Waltz, Op.437; Tempestuous in Love and Dance, Op.393
Josef Strauss – Ohne Sorgen (Without a Care), Op.271; Margherita Polka, Op.244
Carl Zeller – Grubenlichter (Davy Lamps)
Carl Millöcker – In Saus und Braus (Living It Up)
Karl Komzák – Bad’ner Mad’ln (Girls of Baden), Op.257
Johann Strauss I – Venetian Galop, Op.74

Riccardo Muti is soon to be 80 and in an impassioned and thoughtful speech considered 2020 as a ‘horribilis annus [] we are still here believing in the message of music […] we bring joy, hope, peace, brotherhood, Love (with a capital “L”) […] music is a mission […] to make society better, to think about the new generation that in one complete year has been deprived from deep thinking […] Health is the first most important thing but also the health of the mind and music helps. So, my message to [those in power] everywhere in every part of the world is consider culture always as one of the primary elements to have a better society in the future.’ Later introducing the Blue Danube waltz he said, ‘I hope on the waves of this beautiful music, full of joy and sadness, life and death, we can hope for a better year.’ This had also earlier been reflected by a few words from the chair of the Vienna Philharmonic, violinist Daniel Froschauer, who reminded the worldwide audience – watching or listening in – how ‘the music of the Viennese concert has carried us through dark days, as well as joyous times.’ These are indeed the darkest of days for many countries as Covid-19 and its variants are out of control and most are no nearer a ‘normal life’ than they were nine months ago! There are vaccines, but will there be enough for all before 2022?

There are sightseeing opportunities galore in every New Year’s Day Concert: with this time a musical tour during the interval of the picturesque Burgenland (to celebrate 100 years from when it became part of the Republic of Austria) and we got to see Liszt’s birthplace; the modernist Looshaus in the historic centre of Vienna, as well as the Liechtenstein Palace, and both saw dancers of the Vienna State Ballet in pre-recorded routines; and particularly, the Technische Museum, Phonomuseum, the Hofburg’s Imperial Apartments, and Baden bei Wien.

There was a possibility that in better times I would have been in Vienna sometime this year, though the closest I got were some streamed performances from the State Opera and two recent festive TV movies both titled Christmas in Vienna. In the 2019 one, a girl recovering from a failed relationship visits her brother and takes ballroom dancing lessons (as you would) and falls in love waltzing with a handsome European. This year a violinist whose heart isn’t in it anymore comes to Vienna for a concert and regains her passion for her instrument after falling for an American diplomat. Intriguingly, she gets asked to become the leader the Vienna Philharmonic under a female conductor! The filmmakers clearly didn’t understand how unlikely that was though the good news is that for this New Year’s Day Concert there were four women violinists sitting together (for the first time I can remember), albeit in the back row. Both these films were frothy and fun and passed a lockdown afternoon amiably: but they were the sort where the heroine – having wandered through every Weihnachtsmarkt in Vienna – suddenly wonders what ‘Gluewine’ (Glühwein!) is?

So, this concert indeed proved to be a musical beacon of hope for a better 2021. Although I toured the nineteenth-century Musikverein several years ago, it was only in 2018 that I saw my first concert sitting – after more than half a century of travelling to Vienna – in the ornately gilded hall with its impressive acoustics, prominent organ, frescoed ceiling, chandeliers, gilded caryatids (female statues), columns, boxes – well just everything – that seems the near-fantasy setting for an orchestral concert. Countering any optimism were the row upon row of empty seats making it a rather sterile, soulless setting, regardless of how wonderfully it is decorated – as ever – with flowers. Thank goodness for the sublime music-making from Muti and his extraordinary orchestra. (If anyone is interested, there was a rigorous Covid-testing procedure for all concerned who had to have a test every single day!)

Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day Concert 2021

Yet there was some audience reaction (seen as a wall of faces and heard in the Golden Hall) at the end of each half of the concert from – as presenter Petroc Trelawny told us – several hundred who ‘have signed up to go online and offer their applause to us people watching across the Americas, Europe, and Asia [and] so it can be appreciated by the players of the orchestra.’ Trelawny highlighted how ‘more democratic’ it was this year since the price of a ticket is upwards of 1200 euro and so we all now ‘get the same best seats’ thanks to listening to the radio or watching on TV.

Obviously Muti was selected for this concert before this year’s global pandemic and I initially wondered if a more charismatic conductor (do they exist?) might have been better in the prevailing circumstances. Muti, of course, is best known for Verdi, though he has conducted the New Year’s Day Concert on five previous occasions. The first time was in 1993 and it is 50 years since he first conducted the VPO. However, Muti – with a less is more style – was able to make some familiar music sound fresh and there was lilt, elegance, poetic sensibility, even spirituality, as well as a comforting feeling of good cheer (Gemütlichkeit) to what we heard.

The concert began with Franz von Suppé’s lively march from the operetta Fatinitza. Then we heard the first of several (as usual) pieces from Johann Strauss II and this was his stately waltz, Schallwellen (Sound Waves) and his Niko Polka came next (written in 1859 in Russia) with its harp postlude which was the first of several notable contributions from harpist Charlotte Balzereit. Carl Zeller’s intriguing Grubenlichter Waltz with the Davy Lamps of the title being miners’ safety lamps. Carl Millöcker’s In Saus und Braus – which Trelawny translated as ‘living the high life’ completed the short first half and was notable for the sight of Muti bouncing up and down on the podium.

Of course, it was mainly the Strausses – and especially Johann Strauss II – who dominated the second half though only after it began with Suppé’s Overture to Poet and Peasant; an elegiac and engaging work with the habit of lulling the listener into a false sense of musical security before ramping up the drama – much like Rossini’s William Tell Overture – and Charlotte Balzereit’s harp was joined by the eloquence of Tamás Varga’s cello (another who had a number of significant solo moments). Then it was Karl Komzák’s energetic waltz Bad’ner Mad’ln (Girls of Baden) bringing smiles to the faces of more of the players. Josef Strauss’s Margherita Polka palled in comparison to the music from his brother Johann which we heard, before there was their father Johann Strauss I’s spirited Venetian Galop that was chivvied along by some castanets. His son’s Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring) waltz was illustrated by some whirling dancers from the Vienna State Ballet in their colourful Christian Lacroix costumes at the Liechtenstein Palace. Then there were the cuckoo sounds of the French polka, In the Krapfenwaldl, followed by the New Melodies Quadrille where Muti clearly revelled in all the Italian opera references, including from his beloved Verdi. Concluding the official part of the programme were first the Emperor Waltz with Tamás Varga’s quiet cello ushering in some quasi-Wagnerian brass at the end, followed by the rampant polka, Tempestuous in Love and Dance.

Two traditional majestic encores followed beginning with Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube waltz, thankfully without the usual false start. When was the last time it had such Ur-Viennese Schwung and seemed so life-enhancing as a result as it did from Muti and the VPO? Finally, there was Johann Strauss I’s Radetsky March and we could clap along at home if we wished while in the hall Muti enjoyed the opportunity – as he described – to hear it ‘as Strauss intended without the audience applause.’

What could all have just been some self-indulgent musical nostalgia came to express so many more emotions than at first seemed possible. What will 2021 bring the people of the world – who knows? – but if we are to be ever hopeful then this was the perfect way to start.

Jim Pritchard

The New Year’s Day Concert 2021 is available from broadcasters worldwide and is on BBC Sounds and iPlayer in the UK.

For more about the Vienna Philharmonic click here.

1 thought on “A sublime, life-enhancing, New Year’s Day Concert 2021 from Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic”

  1. I totally agree. This was a life-enhancing musical event and Maestro Muti and the VPO could not have conveyed the music more wonderfully!


Leave a Comment