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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni, K 527 (1787): Overture [6:44]
Clarinet Concerto in A major, K 622 (1791) [29:45]*
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K 504, Prague (1786) [28:17]
*Sharon Kam (basset clarinet)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. Estates Theatre, Prague, 27 January 2006.
TV Director: Adam Rezek
Sound formats PCM Stereo, DD5.1, DTS 5.1.
Picture format NTSC 16:9 anamorphic.
Disc format DVD 9.
Region code 0 (all regions)
EUROARTS 2055158 [66:17]

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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 strings.

Honeck’s slightly 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 severity.

Throughout this 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 shoebox.

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 recordings.

Timings       I    II III      tt
Kam/Honeck 11:50  6:48   8:24 27:02
Hoeprich/Bruggen  12:41  6:19 9:00 28:00

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.

Symphony No. 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.

Timings   I   II     III     tt
Honeck   12:41 7:14   5:25  25:20
Harnoncourt       18:29   10:14 7:07   35:50

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 return.

Nevertheless Harnoncourt’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.

Honeck’s swifter 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.

Both conductors 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 of line.

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.

Michael Greenhalgh


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