Waltzing all the way from Vienna to London. Peter Quantrill discusses a reissue of Josef Krips conducting music by the Strauss Family.
A little over a quarter of a century after first raising a baton, Josef Krips made his London debut with a British orchestra in March 1948. He conducted the Philharmonia and Pierre Fournier in the Cello Concerto of Dvořák and the Daily Telegraph reported that ‘the conducting of Professor Krips left a deep impression’. The notices were still more positive, however, when he returned to London in November the same year to share a short Vienna Philharmonic tour with Wilhelm Furtwängler. ‘If unknown before,’ remarked Richard Capell, again in the Telegraph, ‘the conductor Josef Krips will have made his name in a night.’ So it proved: following this engagement, Krips was approached by the agent Harold Holt to represent him in the UK.
It was, perhaps, no accident that for this Vienna Philharmonic concert Krips was conducting music which found him (and the orchestra) on home soil: Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, Eine kleine Nachtmusik of Mozart and waltzes and polkas by Johann Strauss. Of no conductor more than Krips could it be said that he had the waltz rhythms of Vienna in his musical bloodstream. He was born there on 8 April 1902, attended the Humanistisches Gymnasium and then pursued musical studies at the city’s conservatoire with Eusebius von Mandyczewski and Felix Weingartner. In 1921 he became rehearsal pianist, chorus director and conductor at the Volksoper, the spiritual home of Viennese operetta. This led in turn to his engagement in 1933 as a resident conductor at the Staatsoper, where he made his debut with Der Zigeunerbaron by Johann Strauss II. Stripped of his posts by the Nazis after the
annexation of Austria in 1938, he moved to Belgrade, but returned to the city of his birth at the end of World War II.
The occupying Soviet authorities gave Krips full charge of rebuilding the Staatsoper, literally from the ruins of its bombed-out home. Exiled outside the Ringstrasse to the Volksoper, the company gave its first post-war performance at 4pm on 1 May 1945, early enough for audience, cast and production team to make their way home on foot before dark. The opera – of course – was Le nozze di Figaro of Mozart, presented on the 159th anniversary of its premiere at the Burgtheater. Irmgard Seefried sang Susanna, Hilde Konetzni the Countess and Sena Jurinac was Cherubino.
In the pit presided Krips, who proceeded to throw himself body and soul into training and reviving the company from a base of young singers. ‘Thus we were able to build a true Mozart ensemble,’ he later recalled in an American interview, ‘because we had the singers for enough rehearsals and before each performance there was another rehearsal. So that in the end, each performance had a perfect balance. This was the time of Seefried, Schwarzkopf, Kunz, Dermota, Güden. Wilma Lipp. And during those times there was only one star – the composer.’
Thus Krips was the natural choice to lead the company on its overseas tours, first of all to France in the spring of 1947. Though the State Opera performed only in Paris, Krips led the band – the Vienna Philharmonic, under its proper name – in concerts outside the capital. They gave an all-Johann Strauss programme in Marseille, where the conductor remembered the police being called in with rubber truncheons in order to disperse a crowd of angry would-be concert-goers who had been unable to obtain tickets and threatened to break down the doors of the hall.
Later the same year, Krips and the Vienna State Opera undertook a second tour, to London. His UK debut thus took place at Covent Garden, where he conducted both operas and concerts, and received an audience with the Queen Mother (they spoke German together). The Manchester Guardian correspondent (probably Neville Cardus) reported that audiences had to run the gauntlet of a protectionist picket from the Musicians Union, waving placards of ‘British orchestras are second to none’. Less professionally cockeyed, Cardus himself found that ‘the string playing of this orchestra […] under Josef Krips […] are of a kind we do not yet produce here.’
The correspondent of the Hallé Orchestra’s in-house magazine observed with delight Krips leaving his desk on the podium of the Royal Opera House, baton between teeth, to step down to the keyboard, ‘which instantly became a lively protagonist with Figaro and Count Almaviva in the battle of wits’. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was to Manchester that Krips travelled after the tour was over, conducting the Hallé in his first concerts with a British orchestra. With them he gave his first performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah (some years later recorded by Decca with the LPO, and reissued on Decca Eloquence).
His reputation thus established in the UK, Krips was offered and took up the post of principal conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra in 1950. He embarked again on the task, which was becoming something of a speciality for him, of building and training an ensemble. He was playing to a particular strength that the young Zubin Mehta observed as a student in late-1950s Vienna: ‘Krips knew about training an orchestra. [Mehta’s teacher Hans] Swarowsky knew the music backward and forward, but he couldn’t control the orchestra and cajole them into playing it that way. Krips seemed to breathe with the musicians, and his performances came out polished and sparkling.’ This, be it noted, was the dedicated work done by Krips with the orchestra he already knew best, and who knew him best.
And for Krips, that work was done best through Mozart, non pareil of composers. ‘My maxim is that everything has to sound as though it were by Mozart, or it will be a bad performance. When you perform Mozart, everything has to be crystal clear, everything has to be in balance and everything has to have a relaxed sound. Whether that’s in Mozart, Strauss or Wagner.’ But below Mozart, the works of the Strauss family came high up in Krips’s pecking order. He never ceased to take delight in the waltzes, polkas and operettas on which he had cut his teeth as an apprentice at the Volksoper. And perhaps, prickly as conductors often are, it was defensive pride in his mastery of this corner of the repertoire that led Krips to take violent exception, according to the producer John Culshaw, when a young English colleague at Decca, Christopher Jennings, wrote an article in praise of the conductor and in particular of his qualities as a conductor of Johann Strauss’s music. Taking this as a slight against his capabilities in more ‘substantial’ repertoire, Krips did all he could to thwart Jennings’s professional progress. Bewildered and wounded, Jennings died suddenly from polio in his late twenties.
The sad irony is that such touchiness seems entirely unwarranted when, now more than ever, the music of the Strauss family is esteemed no less highly than their Viennese contemporaries such as Brahms who, after all, himself adored this music. Krips was known to the public at large as a superb conductor of this repertoire, guiding orchestras with the unforced lilt and easy, flexible pulse that make it dance, and having signed him up in 1947, Decca took full advantage of that reputation. His first sessions for the company took place on 14 October – arias with Gueden and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 – and three days later Krips returned to Kingsway Hall to record The Blue Danube Waltz with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Decca’s contract with the orchestra expired before the intended second side could be rescheduled, and so The Emperor Waltz was recorded with the ‘New’ Symphony Orchestra in April 1948, as part of sessions including Roses from the South, Accelerationen, the Annen-Polka (track 5 on this anthology) and the Perpetuum mobile (track 6, complete with the conductor’s pay-off line ‘And so on…’).
Krips’s first sessions with the LSO took place in October 1947, again involving Gueden, and in April 1950 he recorded more Strauss with them: Wiener Blut, Wine, Women and Song, and a pair of polkas, the irrepressibly gossipy Tritsch-Tratsch and Piefke und Pufke. He made his first Viennese recordings of Strauss-family repertoire at sessions in the Sofiensaal supervised by Culshaw during October 1956. Gueden took the optional vocal parts in Voices of Spring and Josef Strauss’s Dorfschwalben aus Österreich (Village Swallows from Austria). But only the vocal waltzes were originally issued – first on a 45rpm record and then in 1973 on probably the shortest-ever LP, as part of Decca’s Eclipse imprint. Further sessions took place in September 1957, at which Roses from the South and The Blue Danube were recorded, along with Accelerationen, the Emperor Waltz and the Pizzicato Polka.
The resulting LP was titled ‘Memories of Vienna’ and released in mono in May 1958 (LXT 5431) and in stereo in November that year (SXL 2047). Decca studio reports for these sessions record that abridged version of Roses from the South (‘diluted to taste’) and The Blue Danube (‘bowdlerised bastard version’), in the words of the recording team – were made to fit the confines of a 45rpm record. Byzantine as they may seem to us now, such arrangements were not uncommon in the days when recording budgets were more generous and timetables more flexible. It’s too bad, however, that Decca never got around to recording another Straussian specialty of Krips, the hunting polka Auf der Jagd, which is punctuated by rifle-cracks. Having programmed it for a concert in New York in August 1962, Krips was informed that local bylaws prohibited the discharge of any gun within the perimeter of the city boundaries (the irony!). So a request was made to the police – could a musician hold up a rifle and make as if to fire it while a percussionist supplied the crack? ‘After long deliberation,’ recalled Krips, ‘the police authorities found themselves unable to fulfil even this wish: in New York, it is forbidden to possess a firearm.’