This DVD captures
the Prague component of the 24 hour Mozart international live
TV broadcast and internet streaming to celebrate his 250th
birthday. The concert took place at the Estates Theatre, the
Opera House opened in 1783. The works featured all received
their first performances there.
Our first sight
is of a servant in 18th century attire lighting
a chandelier, a nice touch, but tempered immediately by a
panning shot which shows electric lightbulb chandeliers. The
orchestra is in standard late 19th century evening
dress, the conductor in the 20th century collarless
jacket I associate with Chinese government officials. The
musical performance matches this: historically informed but
a modern Czech Philharmonic, paired down to chamber size.
The Don Giovanni
Overture makes a suitable curtain-raiser. Its ominous introduction
portends the opera’s tragic end and the vivacious continuation
characterises Don Giovanni. To the introduction the Austrian
conductor Manfred Honeck brings ample drama and attack. The
rest is by turns playful and boisterous, delivered with élan.
I compared the
1998 audio recording by Colin Davis/Staatskapelle Dresden
(BMG-RCA 82876 762352). Davis’s introduction is a truer Andante
which gives it more tension and baleful clarity. Even the
Allegro continuation is hectic in its frivolity, with great
full orchestra thrusts followed by contrasting twittering
slower introduction has less of a feeling of inevitability
about it, but its calculated measure is still fateful in its
own way with the gritty frisson of the violins’ demisemiquavers
(tr. 2 from 2:24). His somewhat faster Allegro (from 2:42)
is more relaxed and brighter than Davis, happier yet with
a fiery energy. Honeck’s thrusts aren’t so heavy but the strings
skip with lighter tread. Honeck’s expression shows a will
to convey animation and humour in contrast to the initial
review I shall give actual music timings for recordings, not
the published timings (in the heading above) which include
fade in and out on the CD and entrance, applause, receipt
of bouquets etc. on the DVD. The actual timing for Honeck
in the overture is 5:44 while for Davis it’s 5:42.
You need the overture
to get used to the environment and camera work. The theatre
is imposing but not camera friendly. Several storeys of tiered
boxes surround the horseshoe-shaped auditorium. There are
further tiers at the rear of the stage - this being the stage
design for Don Giovanni. It’s gorgeously elaborate
but the greater emphases on height and length than width,
or rather high vantage point shots which show this, are a
little uncomfortable for widescreen viewing. Sometimes I felt
like Gulliver watching a Lilliputian entertainment in an ornate
The camera angle
chosen for the conductor in close-up is very low. This gives
even greater solidity to his lectern. It’s like being back
in school assembly with the headmaster looming. The spread
of shots between conductor, players and surroundings is reasonable.
The sound is excellent, especially in the surround option,
the acoustic airy but avoiding a fulsome reverberance, the
first and second violins clearly separated left and right.
In the Clarinet
Concerto the Israeli clarinettist Sharon Kam plays with witty
assurance but also, when required, liquid smoothness. She
has a fabulous technique and fruity, mellifluous tone. She
plays on a basset clarinet as would have been used at the
first performance. This has, in her playing, a velvety lower
register which extends a minor third below that of the normal
clarinet and makes available at correct pitch some passages
which are otherwise played an octave higher. Audio recordings
using period instruments always feature basset clarinet, so
I shall use for comparison the 1985 one by Erich Hoeprich
with the Orchestra of the 18th Century/Frans Brüggen
(Philips 4202422). Here are the actual music timings for both
Kam is swifter
in the outer movements but a little more measured in the slow
movement. Honeck sets the pace with scampering strings in
the orchestral introduction and is lively throughout. Brüggen
has more buoyant flutes and horns, is better balanced, and
has an orchestra which neatly combines crispness and relaxation.
Kam’s first movement
has more projection, vivacity and dancing quality with great
brio and fuller, creamier, bubbling tone than Hoeprich’s.
On the other hand, Hoeprich’s is an equally valid, more poetic,
introspective account with a refined, understated singing
tone which nevertheless authentically decorates the two fermatas,
the significant pauses in the music. Kam leaves these fermatas
plain (at 12:00 and 18:11 [continuous timing]) but decorates
the one in the slow movement (tr. 4 23:45).
Kam’s slow movement
has fine, penetrating singing tone yet still has momentum.
The orchestra supplies lyrical warmth. Hoeprich concentrates
on the natural simplicity of the melody, the beauty for him
being on the overall shape of the extended line rather than,
as for Kam, the individual phrasing as part of it. Kam realizes
more effectively the soft return of the opening theme, gradually
becoming louder to fuse with the firmer orchestral response.
Kam’s finale has
more zip with a jauntiness in the semiquaver runs complemented
by fiery orchestral passages. Hoeprich is more contentedly
blithe, the episodes coolly contrasted.
38 in D major, K 504, Prague (1786)
Honeck gives a
fine performance of this Symphony No. 38 Prague on
modern instruments. For DVD comparison and to consider how
far Honeck is historically informed, I turned to the period
instruments of the Vienna Concentus Musicus conducted by
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (BBC Opus Arte OA 0820D) recorded at
Graz concerts in 2001. Here are the actual, strikingly different,
music timings for both recordings.
In the slow introduction
Honeck has smoother contours. After the opening attack his
mollifying passage for strings is more ‘romantic’ Viennese
and his introduction is resilient and gracious by turns but
not as gripping as Harnoncourt’s. This is because Harnoncourt’s
texture is leaner. There’s more bite to his attack - with
searing trumpets, horns and timpani - and glint and charm
to the contrasting strings.
Yet come the Allegro
Honeck has more buoyancy with brighter, more scintillant strings
and the excitement of a swiftly fluid performance - which
threatens to veer off the rails - as well as a real sense
of celebration. His treatment of the second theme (tr. 5 41:50)
is more relaxed than beguiling. There’s a lovely moment (47:36)
when Honeck, almost giggling in sheer enjoyment, puts his
hand furtively over his mouth and stoops to create a softening
of the gambolling strings leading in to the first theme’s
performance has more electricity and sense of rediscovery.
This is partly because of his greater magnetism - doubtless
honed through around thirty years’ more experience - and the
greater involvement this effects in his players. He slows
down slightly for the second theme, which makes it more alluring,
and it goes into a kind of reverie on its return. Less successful
is his rather mannered sudden pause to launch into the fullest
of the violins’ cascades (Barenreiter Urtext bars 62 and 180).
Throughout, Honeck keeps Mozart’s strict tempo.
In the outer movements
Honeck makes the exposition repeats. Harnoncourt not only
provides these but also the second half repeats too, indicated
by Mozart but a rarity in performance today. To include them
emphasises the magnificence of the structure.
In the Andante
central movement only the exposition is marked for repeat,
which is provided by Harnoncourt but, inconsistently, not
by Honeck, so the first time bar (58a) is lost (53:18). Harnoncourt,
gently coaxing, adopts a more leisurely, gliding pace, so
the violins’ melodies are delicate, silky and winsome. Yet
the loud contrasts are strongly characterized, the development
cloudier and more stark.
approach is more broadly dramatic and colourful. It’s more
energized from the bass and the inner string parts are more
emotively realized. The modern instruments bring a richer
texture. You hear more notes owing to the harmonic as well
as melodic emphasis, at a little cost to refinement and subtlety.
provide a pacy finale. Timing just the exposition Harnoncourt
is 1:33 and Honeck 1:36. But Harnoncourt seems faster because
of his lighter, defter strings’ articulation against which
is contrasted bracing brass interjections. Honeck gets more
effect from the explosive dazzle of his fuller scored passages
and otherwise goes for clarity of articulation and resilience
To sum up, this
is enjoyable, spirited, clean-cut, 21st century
Mozart in 18th century surroundings, mettlesome
stuff if possibly too chary of mellow reflection. But on this
showing Honeck is a conductor to watch out for.