Thursday 20 July 2017

This means something to me... oh, Vienna

Back in the day when Adam was a lad and the microphone had yet to come calling, I found myself at a loose end in London, killing time before a job interview the following morning. It was a Sunday afternoon in autumn, and a walk in the park seemed like a good idea.

Down past the Serpentine towards Kensington, the Albert Hall hove into view. Anything musical there to take my fancy? As luck would have it, the Vienna Philharmonic were in town, for an evening of Strauss, under the baton of the inimitable Willi Boskovsky. He was a very big name, because he was the host of a major international event, the New Year's Day concert from Vienna. Strauss in September was an unexpected bonus.

The memories of that night remain vivid. It's a wonderful venue, a big rotunda, even if the acoustic is idiosyncratic, to say the least. The occasion was the thing.

They played all the big setpieces, from Morning Papers to the Emperor Waltz, Voices of Spring to Roses from the South, the polkas, the Radetzky March, and of course, the signature tune of the family Strauss. The shimmering opening of The Blue Danube, the encore, as I recall, brought the house down. All those Viennese New Year concerts had been brought to life in West London.

Willi Boskovsky was one of the great entertainers, yet he never set out to be a star. He was just 30, one of the top violinists of his day, when he landed the job as one of the four leaders of the Vienna Philharmonic. That was in 1939.

By then, he had already founded his own trio, which would become a quartet -- and then, in singular circumstances, grow into an octet. It was just after World War Two, and things were grim in Austria. Boskovsky had been invited to conduct at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, and part of the plan was to put on an evening of chamber music.

If he stretched his ensemble to an eight-piece, he could do his mates a favour and alleviate their gloom with a trip to a country where the war had left no mark, and where everything was freely available, from hard-to-come-by strings for their instruments to Swiss chocolate!

He took over the New Year concerts in 1955, conducting with violin in hand, and celebrated his silver jubilee in 1979, before ill health forced him to step down. He died in 1991. The wonderful sound of the Vienna Philharmonic led by Willi Boskovsky is still available on The Ultimate Strauss Album on Decca (458 367-2).

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

ghamilton@independent.ie

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