By now the entire world is familiar with the Vienna Philharmonic New Year concerts, which are televised live and are made up mostly of waltzes, overtures, polkas and marches by the Strauss family: Johann II (the Waltz King, 1825-1899), his brothers Josef and Eduard, and their father Johann I. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic has a unique authority in, and abiding affection for, this music, which until about 50 years ago had a firm place in the general orchestral repertory.

Until the second half of the last century, in fact, "light music" of all sorts was part of that repertory. It was not unusual for the greatest conductors to begin a concert with a Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner symphony, and in the second half give the audience some elegant bonbons by Chabrier, descriptive suites by Massenet, ballet music by Delibes or Glazunov, overtures to Offenbach operettes -- or the magnificent waltz poems of Johann Strauss.

Nowadays a typical concert program is built with the "big piece" at the end; there must always be a soloist in a concerto or similar showcase; the only ballet music deemed worthy of subscription concerts is Ravel’s or Stravinsky’s, and, since the nature of the pop concert has changed utterly since the glory days of Arthur Fiedler, the entire genre of "light music" has all but disappeared. When it is given a nod, it is all too often based on the grotesquely mistaken notion that it can simply be sight-read. (As actors and stage directors will tell you, effective comedy generally requires more intense preparation than straight drama; the same rule applies to the preparation of light music, for whose success the warmth and brilliance of the performance may amount to more than the substance of the music itself.)

The somewhat labored point here is that, since all this light music has been banished from our concert life, the Vienna Philharmonic New Year concert is our annual reminder of what a valuable treasure this music is, after all. In this case also, there is a long and meaningful connection between this orchestra and this music. The Waltz King himself conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in his music, and in the last century the Philharmoniker performed Strauss waltzes and polkas under such legendary conductors as Felix Weingartner, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber and George Szell.

(Younger readers, possibly surprised to learn this, may be advised that no musical figure was more widely admired than the Waltz King in his time. Wagner and Brahms, despite their differing creative outlooks, were alike in their reverence for him. Wagner declared that Strauss had "the most musical head in all Europe," and on one occasion seized the baton from a hapless conductor in the middle of a dull performance of the waltz Wine, Woman and Song to finish the performance himself. Brahms and Strauss were actually friends: Strauss dedicated his waltz Seid umschlungen, Millionen! to Brahms, who at a party signed Strauss’s wife’s fan with the opening bars of The Blue Danube and the remark, "Unfortunately not by me -- J. Brahms." In 1921, even Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern arranged five Strauss waltzes for chamber ensemble.)

The New Year concerts became generally known to the rest of the world in 1952, when Decca (at that point London Records in the US) issued its first New Year’s Concert LP, with the VPO conducted by Clemens Krauss. It comprised nine tracks: Josef Strauss’s exuberant waltz Mein Lebenslauf ist Lieb’ und Lust ("I Live My Life for Love and Joy") and his two contrasting polkas Dragonfly and Jockey; Johann’s magnificent Tales from the Vienna Woods (given in full, with the zither in its extended introduction), his contrasting polkas Im Krapfenwald’l, Eljen a Magyar and Vergnügungszug, his Egyptian March, and the Pizzicato Polka composed jointly by the two brothers.

(Regarding those "contrasting polkas," they come in various styles, speeds and moods, ranging from the romantic or wistful polka-mazur to the graceful or sometimes humorous polka française to the dashing or eruptive polka schnell. The waltzes, being longer and more elaborate, always contain a chain of waltz tunes, offering a greater variety within each work as well as greater overall length; those by the Strausses might be called "waltz-poems.")

Krauss (1893-1954) was probably the greatest of all conductors of this material. He gave it sustained and serious attention throughout his career, and of course he built on the orchestra’s own long connection with the Waltz King and his music. As early as 1929, the year he became director of the Vienna State Opera, Krauss conducted the Philharmoniker in a Strauss concert at the Salzburg Festival, where he made it a tradition through 1933. He began his New Year concerts actually on New Year’s Eve, at the end of 1939, but changed to daytime on New Year’s Day a year later. After that the concerts were sometimes repeated on January 2, and sometimes given on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The too little remembered Josef Krips, who held so much of Vienna’s musical life together in the immediate postwar years, conducted the concerts of 1946 and '47, while Krauss was undergoing "denazification," but Krauss resumed his New Year concerts on January 1, 1948, and presided over them until his death.

The three New Year LPs Krauss recorded for Decca were not taped live. Each was recorded under studio conditions several months before the actual date, so that the LP could be in the shops on New Year’s Day, and the repertory, chosen by Decca’s A&R team, became part of the much longer public concert given on that date. The 1953 LP comprised Josef’s waltz Village Swallows from Austria and his polkas Moulinet, Ohne Sorgen and Feuerfest; and from Johann the waltz Morning Papers, the polkas Stadt und Land and Auf der Jagd, the Csárdás from the comic opera Ritter Pázmán, and the virtuosic little scherzo Perpetuum mobile (which Krauss, recording for a British company, ended with a spoken "And so on," in English rather than the German "Und so weiter").

This performance of Morning Papers has been particularly admired, and stands out even among Krauss’s own recordings. When Hans Weigl’s elegant little tribute to the orchestra, Das Buch der Wiener Philharmoniker, was published, in 1967 (the centenary of the Blue Danube Waltz as well as the 125th anniversary of the orchestra itself), the two brief pieces on the recording included with the book were the Romanze from Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto, with Bruno Walter as both soloist and conductor, and this Krauss performance of Morning Papers.

The 1954 LP comprised only seven tracks, three of them waltzes: Johann’s Blue Danube and Bei uns z’Haus, and Josef’s poetic Music of the Spheres. The other pieces were Josef’s scherzo Plappermäulchen ("Chatterbox"), his polka Auf Ferienreisen ("On Vacation") Johann’s Annen-Polka, on the final track, Johann I’s Radetzky March, famous now as the concluding encore at every New Year’s concert. Fittingly, in this respect, it marks the end of Clemens Krauss’s Strauss series for Decca: he died in May 1954, while on tour in Mexico, and he was succeeded as conductor of the New Year concerts by Willi Boskovsky, who had been the orchestra’s concertmaster for years, and also the leader of the Vienna Octet, a chamber-music ensemble drawn from the orchestra.

The onset of Boskovsky’s role in the New Year concerts coincided with the beginning of stereophonic recordings; his annual additions to the New Year discography were well received, and during his tenure the concerts began reaching a far broader audience through live international television, which in 1975 became the source of the recordings. The last of Boskovsky’s 25 New Year concerts, on January 1, 1979, was recorded live in full, and the two-LP set was the first digital recording issued by Decca.

When Boskovsky stepped down, the orchestra decided to continue its established custom of having a single conductor in charge of the New Year concerts for an extended term, and its choice was the American Lorin Maazel, who was at that time conductor of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Orchestre National de France. After seven New Years under Maazel (1980-86), who had become director of the Vienna Opera in 1982, the Philharmoniker began inviting a different conductor each year. The first of these was Herbert von Karajan; subsequent conductors, some of whom appeared more than once, have been Carlos Kleiber (son of the aforementioned Erich), Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Georges Prêtre, Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, and, with conspicuous frequency, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, and Maazel. This year’s conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, has included Strauss waltzes in his Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and earlier recorded a bunch of them with the London Philharmonic.

While all the Boskovsky material has been kept in circulation in various Decca packages, and all the subsequent live New Year concerts are available on a variety of labels, Decca has been curiously negligent toward its invaluable Krauss recordings, which, despite the charm or novelty of this or that later conductor, retain their unique authority and irresistible persuasiveness. To be sure, all the Krauss recordings are in mono, and they go back 60 years, but anyone who owns the LPs can vouch for their sumptuousness and how well the sound suits the music. Decca was, after all, one of the industry’s outstanding leaders at the time in respect to sound quality, and we might have assumed that at least some of this material would reappear in the company’s "Legends" series, which did include some monophonic items, but that did not happen.

Decca did bring out, in 1992, a CD edition of Krauss’s incomparable recording of Die Fledermaus --and with it as filler, the entire content of the 1952 New Year LP. But this two-disc set (425 990-2, with bilingual libretto) was disappointing sonically, and after a brief shelf life it was withdrawn. Since then, however, there has been no shortage of reissues of the Krauss recordings from other sources, though many collectors may be unaware of them. Preiser, the Austrian "historical reissue" specialist label, has brought out virtually every recording Krauss ever made, and the Japanese label Opus Kura has given us his last actual New Year’s Day concert, from radio tapes. There is even a CD of unique documentary interest from the Vienna Philharmonic itself.

The Krauss New Year recordings (and additional orchestral pieces)

The first Decca New Year program (1952) alone is available in Peter Harrison’s excellent transfer for Pristine Audio, on a CD (PASC 009) or as a download. From the same source is a transfer of an LP which never circulated in America: a connoisseur’s bouquet from all three of the Krauss New Year LPs, comprising Johann Strauss’s Overture to Der Zigeunerbaron ("The Gypsy Baron") and his waltzes Morning Papers and Bei uns z’Haus, and three of Josef’s waltzes: Music of the Spheres, Village Swallows and Mein Lebenslauf (PAKM 029). Both of these command the gratitude of anyone and everyone with functioning ears by showing what can be done with these wonderful old recordings.

Decca’s entire Krauss New Year series is offered, in somewhat less impressive transfers, by Preiser (90336, two discs), Archipel (ACP-225, two discs) and Opus Kura (two separate CDs: OKP 7008 and OKP 7011). All of these add the four pieces that were on another Krauss Decca LP, made a bit earlier than the first New Year disc: the overtures to Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, and the waltzes Voices of Spring and Artists’ Life. Collectors familiar with the respective labels will know what to expect in the way of sound quality. Note, however, that only the Opus Kura presentation is utterly complete: Archipel omits Josef’s Plappermäulchen, and Preiser omits his polka Ohne Sorgen; I regard the latter, with its engaging instrumental and vocal effects, as the greater loss.

Opus Kura’s two-disc set of Krauss’s 1954 concert as broadcast live (OPK 7006-07) includes six of the seven pieces on the Decca LP for that year (all but the Annen-Polka) plus Johann’s waltz Voices of Spring, his Perpetual Motion, and his polkas Auf der Jagd, Im Krapfenwald’l and Eljen a Magyar; Josef’s waltz Schwert und Leier, his Plappermäulchen, his polkas Rudolfsheimer, Dragonfly and Moulinet, and the brothers’ Pizzicato Polka. An interesting document of the event, with spoken introductions and encores of some of the polkas, but the compromised sound quality limits musical enjoyment per se.

The Vienna Philharmonic has produced a CD, again from a broadcast source, of Krauss’s first New Year’s Day concert, given on January 1, 1941. While that date is a grim reminder of the situation that existed beyond the world of Strauss and Krauss at that time (and the sound quality here, even more than in the 1954 broadcast, tends to brand this, too, as more of a documentary offering than a strictly musical one), the disc gives us Krauss’s only recorded performances of the waltzes Wiener Blut and Roses from the South. Also represented are the Waltz King’s Perpetuum mobile, Russian March, Gypsy Baron Overture, and his polkas Demolirer, Eljen a Magyar and I-Tüpferl, as well as Josef’s Plappermäulchen, his waltz Frauenwürde, his polkas Moulinet and Eingesendet, and the Pizzicato Polka. For details, see the orchestra’s website, where background on the New Year concerts may also be found:

Krauss’s Fledermaus and Zigeunerbaron

Kraus recorded both of these stage works for Decca just before his first New Year LP. He assembled dream casts, and while it was Gustav Mahler who brought Die Fledermaus into the repertory of the Vienna Opera, as a "comic opera" rather than an operetta, it was Krauss who not only revalidated the wisdom of that decision but also made it clear that Der Zigeunerbaron ("The Gypsy Baron") is actually the Waltz King’s masterwork for the stage. The unforgettable tenor Julius Patzak and versatile baritone Alfred Poell were in both recordings. (Who has ever realized Barinkay’s "Als flotter Geist" with the verve, warmth, spontaneity and utter conviction Patzak brought to it?) Hilde Gueden and Wilma Lipp were the stunning female leads in Die Fledermaus, and the previously recorded Voices of Spring was used as ballet music in Act II.

There have been numerous CD transfers of Krauss’s Fledermaus, from Preiser and others, following Decca’s own. A Nimbus set (NI7954/5) includes imaginatively chosen recordings from various sources for the party scene in Act II, and, as filler, a clutch of Viennese songs sung by Patzak, with a Schrammel quartet. David Lennick’s well received transfers of both Fledermaus and Gypsy Baron for Naxos are not available in the US, but Pristine Audio offers Die Fledermaus in another fine transfer by Peter Harrison. This Fledermaus has been a continuing labor of love for Pristine’s Andrew Rose, who made it part of his initial release, in February 2005, and five years later undertook an ambient stereo 16-bit FLAC version; it is also available as 320kbps MP3, regular 16-bit FLAC, and in Pristine Audio Direct Access, as well as actual CDs. For details:

For The Gypsy Baron, the choice at the moment would be either the Preiser set (Paperback Opera 20020, with the 1952 New Year material as filler), or ordering the Naxos from a retailer abroad. There are still more options in Japan, and Universal’s Australian Eloquence team is planning to issue all of the Krauss recordings mentioned here early next year. It is reassuring to know that this invaluable and irreplaceable material will continue to circulate in conscientiously undertaken reissues. The Strauss legacy of Clemens Krauss and the mid-20th-century Vienna Philharmonic is definitely worth the effort, as the likelihood of its being matched at any time only grows dimmer with the passing years.

. . . Richard Freed