Every now and again I stumble on a new performance of a work that is an old friend, in this case Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube. It’s one of those things we’ve heard so many times that perhaps we become inured to it, or just plain bored. Though there was nothing quite like walking down the Danube quay with my sister years ago, in Vienna, and hearing this (in)famous tune as the waves literally rolled by. I don’t know who the performers were in that recording were, and in a way, they maybe trump everything I write here, thanks to the memorable moment.
But in fiddling on YouTube tonight I came across a 1932 performance of the piece with Erich Kleiber and the Berlin Staatkapelle which made me bolt up in my chair — like hearing an old friend re-tell a story…for the first time. In another video discussing the Kleiber performance, a commenter who was a record executive at the time talked about how, in this performance, Kleiber (senior) turned a German orchestra into an Austrian on. In every nuance, this is something to marvel at — and using the minimal conducting nonverbals that were common at the time. Watch and admire.
For reference, some of the other performances I’ve had in my collection: First the most authentic of Viennese bandlea
ders Willi Boskovsky, who never had to convince anyone of anything, as the longtime concertmaster of the VPO, famously conducting the New Years’ Concerts without a baton, sitting down after setting the tempo. Boskovsky’s London/Decca record, from an early stereo version, is crisp and clean and straightforward. It lacks the drama and personality of Kleiber with the Berliners — but also a reminder that this was intended as dance music, not concert performance.
Similar to Boskovsky is Ferenc Fricsay with the RSO Berlin, also from the early stereo era, is dance-like performance, with rich sound in my Alle Hersteller first pressing. But rather undramatic and without a deep bass in the closing passages.
One of the finest renditions on disc comes from Herbert von Karajan, who gave his swan song performance with the VPO in 1989, in a rightly acclaimed New Years’concert that ranks among the finest. Karajan did emphasize the baritone, as was his habit, and it delivers quite an effect here. As in his earlier recording with EMI(in rich 4-channel sound) the pacing is far more stately and formal than most others. The final passages come off as dramatic and even Brahmsian, lacking some of the dance-like bounce one hears with Boskovsky or Kleiber, the Elder. HvK is not to all taste, but this New Years’ concert was something special.
Kleiber, the younger, enters into this as he too conducted a VPO New Years’ program and, as is obligatory, included the Blue Danube as the penuntimate number. Unlike his dad, Carlos’s rendition is not quite as memorable, though in his style — as with Boskovsky — he lets the orchestra speak for themselves at times, doing something few directors do these days: Put down their batons in mid-performance. Carlos Kleiber’s New Years’ Concert is a wonderful thing, and one can find it on eBay on vinyl (at very high prices from the Japanese market, primarily, given that it was recorded by Sony).
A last unusual contender, but personal favorite, is Sir John Barbirolli, whose recording on Mercury (from their glory days) is jaunty and fun, as well as dramatic and
appropriately danceable. The sound is good, though I’ve never particularly bought into the Living Presence enthusiasms. But as always, Gloriuos John sounds as though he’s having fun, not just producing great sound. Strauss is about both.