Speaking as a recovering percussionist and as a conductor, it is important to note that the methods used to talk descriptively about beat placement have two contradictory qualities:
- They come from a very modern and commercial worldview. I use the term commercial to refer specifically to the advent of electronic recording techniques and more specifically to quantization.
- They are (almost) the best we have.
It may seem strange, but modern electronic metronomes with the ability to create a variety of quantized subdivisions of the beat and commercial pop recordings have slowly eroded our historically more fluid notion of musical time. (Think of other musical styles in which notes of equally notated value receive non-uniform durational values in performance, such as notes inegales, ragtime, or swing. The truth is that it is problematic to say simply that the second beat often falls "early" in many Viennese waltzes. It is accurate, only if ones accepts a modern notion of time that recognizes a universal sense of "on time" anchored on sequential quantized pulses. In truth, the word "early" is an implicitly relativistic term and is problematic in the case of making an analysis of a musical culture.
As an example: what does it mean to say that I woke up early this Sunday morning? It implies a cultural norm regarding when people wake up on a Sunday, and that I woke up earlier than that. So "early" actually means "earlier than the norm". It only gives you a sense of a time range in which I probably woke up because you have a sense of when people normally wake up on Sundays. If that cultural norm shifted, as many such norms often do, someone could read this very differently in the future.
Now, unfortunately for us, commercial culture has become so widespread, that it becomes increasingly difficult within the developed world to grow up with any other possible understanding about time. This makes it even harder to know for certain how even the relatively homogenous, almost all-male Vienna Philharmonic might conceive of these ideas. But it is worth noting that time is actually significantly more fluid, and can be thought of in a variety of more fluid terms.
Just one very simple example within the present discussion: you could just as easily and (arguably) just as rightly say that the first beat is clipped short. We imply that the second beat to be the pattern-offending beat when we say it is early. We know that musical note values are only articulate-able in terms of their relationships to other note values. We know that we experience note values in sequence, i.e. one after the other, and so we cannot appreciate a note value in musical terms until (at least) the following note value is performed.(In other words, when we listen, we don't know how long a note is until the next note or rest is performed. This is opposed to measurement in scientific terms of duration in milliseconds, which is possible but not germane.) Also, we cannot deduce patterns until a sequence has repeated itself at least once (for a total of two full iterations). So we can't make hierarchical relationships (such as first beat, second beat, third beat) valid without having heard that pattern iterated at least twice. (And if my 8th grade algebra teacher is correct, then we really need at least three points [iterations] on that line to confirm it.)
All of this said, we return to my example of an alternative description of the three interior pulses of many Viennese waltz performances. As I said, beat one is clipped, and we add to that description that: beat two is pregnant, and beat three is neutral. These are still relational terms mind you, but they don't single out beat two as being an offending beat. The only thing it offends is a quantized notion of where the beat "should" land. It is also important because these terms relate the three pulses to each other and not to an exterior musical culture. Think of the three bears. One's too short, one's too long, and one is just right.
This might seem like an interesting (and admittedly incomplete) discussion about broader concepts suitable for a theory classroom rather than a specific answer to the original question. But it can lead to a change in the framework over which broader interpretive decisions are made. For instance, I have heardmany performances by orchestras and conductors less skilled, perhaps less mindful, and certainly less nuanced than those mentioned above. I often find that they exaggerate by over-emphasizing the second beat, causing it to stick out. It can almost begin to sound like a form of duple-based syncopation: eighth-quarter-eighth. This, I believe, is not the desired effect. It is always hard to say for certain what conception an interpreter (be it a conductor or otherwise) was using as the basis for a performance without having heard them describe it in rehearsals, but it is safe to say that small details in descriptive language can often have far-reaching implications in performance.
The best remedy for these problems of language has been, in my experience, something that is (thankfully) more immediately gratifying than worrying about the semantics of the word "early" as I have just done and (fortunately) much easier to do: LISTEN! Listen to as much music as you possibly can. A great way to make a useful comparative study would be to select 5 of the past Vienna New Year's Eve concert recordings. Same orchestra, same hall, mostly same players, different conductor, and choose just one waltz common to all. The easiest of course is the most well-known, Blue Danube, since it is performed virtually every year. Choose only one or two strains to listen to at a time, and then go through each recording, noticing as many fine distinctions as possible. One useful tool to also consider is to find cases where the same conductor has returned and performed at least twice, such as the legendary Carlos Kleiber in '89 and '92. Still, we find small differences that can be enlightening. Absorbing the style as best one can through listening is by far the best way to understand it. It is really the difference between learning German in a classroom and understanding the mechanics of verb forms and cases, and the level at which you can go to Germany and listen to the language to understand how it is actually spoken by ordinary people.