These recordings are
getting quite old now, but still manage
to sound fresh and invigorating. This
is because of (a) the striking recording
which pulls no punches, (b) the brilliant
playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra,
but most of all (c) the quirky, unpredictable
interpretations of the conductor Nikolaus
Harnoncourt (or Herr J.N.de la Fontaine
und d’Arnoncourt-Unverzagt, as his friends
know him). I was reminded very much
of the Mackerras set of the Beethoven
symphonies, which I
reviewed back in October 2002, for
both have a similarly no-nonsense approach,
and furthermore have incorporated a
suitably authenticity into the sound
of a fine modern symphony orchestra.
Sometimes, I part company
with Harnoncourt; his Minuet in no.39
is simply too fast – a breathless one-in-the-bar
– though thankfully he allows the music
to ease a little for the Trio. On the
other hand, there is a strangely languid
quality about the first three movements
of the "Jupiter", the first
in particular deprived of much of its
momentum, though admittedly acquiring
an enhanced grandeur (And a question;
were the engineers quite ready at the
very beginning of the first movement?
The levels seem to change uncomfortably
within a few seconds). The finale, though,
zips along with overpowering energy,
suggesting that Harnoncourt always has
his mind on the total conception and
impact of these glorious works.
Another great plus
is the recognition of all repeats, which
means that not just the exposition but
the development-recapitulation is heard
twice where demanded by the composer.
This gives a much truer view of musical
structure, for while we are accustomed,
perhaps, to perceive sonata form as
a three-part concept, it is in reality
a complex binary pattern, which
Harnoncourt allows us to perceive.
Of the three early(ish)
symphonies contained in the set, K.183
in G minor is the most familiar. It
is a powerful work, certainly adumbrating
the composer’s later masterpiece in
the same key. Harnoncourt emphasises
the work’s energy, with a first movement
characterised by harshly stabbing accents
in strings and horns. Too much? Possibly,
but there are no kid gloves in these
performances. This conductor takes a
much more physical line then we are
used to in Mozart, and the result is
bracing. He is also prepared to be unashamedly
Romantic in his phrasing; the lovely
slow movement (looking forward to more
late Mozart, this time the Benedictus
of the Requiem) being affectionately
and flexibly shaped.
The remaining two symphonies
on this disc, numbers 26 and 28, receive
similarly robust treatment; I particularly
enjoyed no.26, with its unusual three
movement form and extreme brevity
(less than ten minutes altogether!),
though whether it truly belongs in an
exclusive collection of just nine ‘plus
belles’ symphonies is highly debatable.
The next disc has the
"Haffner" and "Linz"
symphonies of 1782 and 1783 respectively.
The first receives an appropriately
extrovert performance, but the "Linz"
suffers, like the "Jupiter",
from a first movement which seems a
little too leisurely; this is bustling,
energetic music, which is after all
marked Allegro spiritoso. And
it’s the spirit that seems, if
not missing exactly, then perhaps just
a little dilute.
Disc 3, with Symphonies
38 and 39 may be the most successful,
though I confess that these are my two
favourite Mozart symphonies, so I could
be unduly biased! The "Prague"
is given a truly splendid performance,
and emerges as the grand and powerful
masterpiece it undoubtedly is. The colouring
of the slow introduction is masterly,
the chromaticisms and minor harmonies
casting the dark shadows that the majestic
Allegro works hard to banish.
But those shadows prove hard to dispel,
and recur not only in the first movement’s
second subject but in the increasingly
despondent middle section of the slow
movement (Mozart’s greatest symphonic
movement? Just a thought). No. 39 is
a great success, apart from that irritating
Minuet and Trio mentioned above – though
I think I could get to like it! This
symphony is a dream for wind players,
and the Concertgebouw woodwind and horns
indulge themselves with impunity.
Disc 4 contains the
last two symphonies, no. 40 in G minor
and the "Jupiter". Though
Harnoncourt does rather worry at no.
40’s first movement’s main theme, his
urgent, vivid approach really works
here, revealing what can come across
as a somewhat febrile work (in a routine
performance) in its true light as a
nervy, sinewy work, full of violent
contrasts. The conductor’s willingness
to allow, for example, his horns to
produce really brassy tone transforms
the texture in many of the tuttis, making
the whole piece seem – rightly, I believe
- more abrasive.
Many listeners will
find the slow movement considerably
less slow than they are used
to. It is written in 6/8 time, which
means (given the Andante tempo
indication) two beats in the
bar – not six, as many conductors
give us. Nothing more to add, other
than the fact that it undeniably works
marvellously, as does the vigorous Minuet
and Trio (though I do wonder if Harnoncourt,
if recording today, would slow down
as much as this for the Trio). The finale
is simply wonderful; I love the way
the conductor plays Mozart at his own
game in those extraordinary few bars
at the beginning of the development!
I’ve already mentioned
the contentious tempi for the first
three movements of the "Jupiter".
But I need to emphasise that, as any
music-lover knows, there is no such
thing as a ‘right’ tempo for a piece
of music. If you can make it work convincingly,
make the music come alive and transmit
its character, then you’ve succeeded.
Harnoncourt succeeds, and this is a
truly stunning set which made me listen
to these great works in a totally new
way – no, more than that, made me reassess
them, coming to the conclusion that
they are all even greater and more important
than I had previously realised. Oh,
and hugely enjoyable, too!