The Manchester Camerata’s New Year’s Day afternoon concerts with a strong Austrian element have become something of a tradition in Manchester. The orchestra cannot rival the smoothness of sound and long tradition of the Vienna Philharmonic but Manchester is justly proud of its own orchestras and a large audience came to the Bridgewater Hall to welcome 2016 with its own Viennese concert. They were treated with a very happy event giving promise of a prosperous and musical New Year.

Olena Tokar © Dorothee Falke
Olena Tokar
© Dorothee Falke
Johann Strauss II was the composer of the majority of the pieces in today’s concert, including the “big four” waltzes (Roses from the South, the Emperor Waltz, Voices of Spring and By the Beautiful Blue Danube) and a selection of polkas and other pieces. In a very satisfying piece of programming these were interspersed with five of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and six arias for soprano and orchestra by other composers from the Central European tradition.

Both conductor and soloist were new to me. The young British conductor Alpesh Chauhan is Assistant Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and has received praise in reviews on Bachtrack and elsewhere. He introduced the works to the audience informally and enthusiastically and established a nice rapport with the audience. Olena Tokar is a young Ukranian soprano who has won major prizes and sings major operatic roles in Leipzig and other cities.

Strauss’ Thunder and Lightning Polka provided an exhilarating start to proceedings with prominent side-drum, bass drum and timpani. Throughout the concert the playing of Strauss was inspired. Chauhan brought out the humour in the Perpetuum Mobile (with stylish solos from several players) and the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. The Pizzicato Polka was a delight. Conductor and orchestra gave fine accounts of the longer pieces. Works such as the Emperor Waltz which ended the first half of the concert and the Blue Danube which was the last item on the programme are substantial compositions and have many features of orchestral tone poems. Many “serious” composers have recognised this, not least Brahms, and Chohan treated them with the appropriate attention and respect. He did not, however, neglect the crucial Viennese lilt to these waltzes and the result was very satisfying.

Bringing Brahms and Strauss together is always intriguing. The two men were friends, admired each other’s music and inhabit the same sound world. Brahms’s Hungarian Dances show the composer at his most relaxed, revelling in the folk music of Hungary and the Hungarian gypsies and producing dances of a rather different style from those of his near-contemporary Strauss. Our selection of five dances gave a good idea of the variety, from the delicate No. 13 to the ever popular csárdás of No. 4. The performances were spirited and nicely captured the changes of tempo and mood typical of Hungarian dance music.

Olena Takar has a rich but agile voice but one which was insufficiently powerful to come across the orchestra in some of her arias. She sparkled in the Alleluia from Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, but her voice struggled to rise above the orchestra in the two arias by Lehár, “Hör’ ich Cymbalklänge” from Zigeunerliebe and “Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss” from Giuditta. Both of these might otherwise have been rousing showstoppers. In Nico Dostal’s “Ich bin verliebt” from Clivia she was all but inaudible, at least from my seat. Far more successful were two beautiful arias from more serious operas in the second half or the concert: Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”.

A Viennese celebration of the New Year would not be complete without encores and we were not disappointed. Olena Tokar returned to sing the Vilja Lied from Lehár’s Merry Widow and finally Johann Strauss I’s best known composition, the Radetzky March, sent the audience away full of good cheer for 2016.

A Happy New Year from Manchester!

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