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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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W.A. MOZART - Les Plus Belles Symphonies
Symphony No.25 in G minor K183.
Symphony No.26 in Eb major K184.
Symphony No.28 in C major K200.
Symphony No.35 in D major K385
'Haffner'. Symphony No.36 in C major K425 'Linz'.
Symphony No.38 in D major K504 'Prague'.
Symphony No.39 in Eb major K543.
Symphony No.40 in G minor K550.
Symphony No.41 in C major K551 'Jupiter'.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
WARNER CLASSICS 4CDs 5046682882 Superbudget price

 


Symphonies 25/26/28 7 4509-97485-2 [75.00]

25 - This invigorating account of middle-period Mozart provides great pleasure. What Harnoncourt adds to the dramatic "little" G minor Symphony is a direct link to the innovative Beethoven of the Eroica Symphony in the bite of articulation, the heightened harmonic juxtapositions and the controlled rawness of the tutti f and sf chords. The first movement captures the urgency and drama of Sturm und Drang and has a compelling momentum, yet has ample time for reflection and restrained anticipation. This is admirably paced particularly in the reduced tempo and dynamic of the bridge passages, then launching with awesome energy into the new tutti sections where the repeated fast bowings and wind and brass attacks give marvellous point to Mozart's startling imagination. Using four horns, and pairs of oboes and bassoons, this is in many ways a striking score and Harnoncourt misses neither the grandeur nor the humour. Perhaps there are moments when the modern strings of the outstanding Concertgebouw sound a touch plush for our current Classical explorations, but it's a gorgeous sound in its own right and they play with fresh sparkle and always commit instantly to the varying power and grace. The horns certainly enjoy their moments of ensemble: I'd prefer just a little more prominence to the woodwinds.

The double-reeds do have their moments of distinction in the second movement (andante), taken quite quickly, almost losing moments of graceful point in the push to maintain momentum; there are times when the upbeats are not uniformly lifted by the strings, and the downbeat stretches don't all settle neatly. The phrasing, occasionally slightly snatched at this tempo, doesn't completely decide on two crotchets or four quavers, but the long arches are well conveyed.

The Menuetto (briskly one-in-a-bar) returns to the gritty minor, anticipating Schubert's Fifth Symphony Scherzo in impact and bearing some similarities in melodic contours. There is much tasteful phrase-shaping, and a slower trio (almost a beat = bar of scherzo) which features the wind section to perfection.

The almost attacca last movement reveals the thematic connection from the minuet and sets off with humorous vitality: the strings fully delight in the sprightly articulations and show deftness allowing greater prominence to their woodwind colleagues than in the first movement.

The recording ideally supports and projects all colours and registers and conveys closely the vulgar humanity and delicate charm of this astonishing music - one of the lesser-known masterpieces of Mozart's output.

26 - Look out there, lads! - the military's arrived! This is a stirring opening with pairs of trumpets and horns, flutes, oboes, and bassoons (but no drums): the fanfare rhythms are projected unanimously by the full ensemble with gusto, and the contrasted softer, gentle phrases are lovingly caressed into life, nowhere more so than in the second movement, which leads out of the first movement's diminuendo and written-out rallentando in another masterstroke of Mozart's fertile imagination. From the open-air bravado of the first movement, we enter the drawing-room interior in darkened tones to reflect on the world's sorrows of losses in battle? - there is more than a hint of the Eroica's funeral melodies, keys and rhythms here, and in the fragmentation of melodic elements across the ensemble; surely Beethoven knew this work well. The third and last movement, a dazzling scherzo, proceeds out of the slow music seamlessly: swaggering semiquavers in the strings, rollicking wind phrases - this thunders to a super-confident conclusion. Dramatically conceived, convincingly performed in every way - a full engrossing symphony in less than nine minutes!

28 - A typical arpeggio tutti opens this scintillating performance of one of the sunny first movements, where all's right with the world and humour's the key: although the strings don't always negotiate their decorations and semiquaver runs perfectly unanimously they all enter the fun palace together and there are infectious high spirits throughout. The pairs of horns, trumpets and oboes shine out appropriately, balancing their longer notes or rhythmic interjections ideally to the contrapuntal energy in the strings. Occasional quaver upbeat groups in the strings sound a little hard-worked, though the wind versions have a delicacy which feels more idiomatic and natural. Arresting playing of much spirit and vitality.

The muted violins begin the andante innocently and disarmingly, almost coyly, only for the tutti f to catch us by surprise - Mozart's jokes at the expense of players and listeners are more often played out for their true value these days and here we get the full effect of his wake-up call. Returning to the softer music, however, doesn't fully recapture the subtle gentleness of the opening, and the momentum is pushed on just a little; slightly nervy at times, the decorative demisemiquaver violin filigree is well together, but just a fraction less relaxed than it might be. Later in the second section the tempo settles nicely, and the repeat seems to provide just enough more time for everyone to feel their way onto the cadence points: it can only be a matter of a couple of beats per minute different at the most, but the charming easefulness of most of this movement is utterly beguiling; the final bars are exquisitely handled.

The bucolic Minuetto (marked allegretto) is just brisk enough for spirit, not quite one-in-a-bar. The horns revel in their solo and ensemble contributions here, and the playful trio with its hints of cross-rhythms, chirruping dotted patterns and spiky piano phrases adds admirable contrast - the DC is almost shockingly brief and bold.

The finale has great impact and caps this vital performance with playing of outstanding virtuosity in all sections - the strings have a field day picking up rosette after rosette for nimbleness, gracefully pointed bowing and tightly controlled ornaments, while the wind players add pastoral colours of bird-calls and merry-making.

This is a super disc, played often with tremendous verve and always with powerful commitment and variety; Harnoncourt's interpretations are refreshing and reveal more than the period of the music's composition, much more the links to later composers, whose debt to Mozart's genius is confirmed afresh. A wonderful joy.

Symphonies 35/36 7 4509-97488-2 [62.18]

35 - The Haffner begins with powerful strokes as if almost all the orchestra wishes they had timpani - richly integrated full classical sound, for by now Mozart has double woodwinds of all four instruments, and pairs of horns and trumpets with timpani besides. The symphony grew, or, rather, was reduced, from a longer serenade (not the Haffner serenade, though): the concept works brilliantly at every level and shows no sign of being a reworking. This reading brings to the fore the dramatic power of the melodic motifs, and the brilliant orchestration, passing ideas across easily from strings to wind, and employing held notes in the wind while the strings discuss the potential of a few notes here, and a few phrases there, all contained within the strongly marked repeating-note rhythm which immediately gains attention at the beginning and leads back to itself with apparent inevitability.

In the andante we hear a second violin line of arpeggiated staccato semiquavers (later beautifully parodied by the bassoon) which may well have triggered Haydn's Surprise symphony slow movement. There are some delicious passages of writing particularly for the winds, reminding the listener of the dense, low texture Mozart created in the Serenade for thirteen wind instruments, a piece these players would know intimately. Above we can hear the delicate violins, sometimes pecking away at a single note, sometimes twining round chromatically searching for the cadence. The Concertgebouw reveal the orchestral textures with insight and care, and Harnoncourt sets an ideal tempo for this long movement (almost as long as the first and last combined) so interest is constantly engaged, and the pace never flags, nor ever hurries.

The larger orchestra (without flutes and clarinets here) strikes the opening of the stately Menuetto with the same touch as the first movement - bringing a touch of cohesion to the four-movement form, indeed Mozart's first movement octave leap is here filled into the arpeggio on the same note. There is an earthy swagger in the fuller passages, and a more dutiful reverential tone and touch in the lighter filling.

The last movement builds a mighty head of steam with scurrying strings buzzing along with intense delight, whilst the timpanist is clearly encouraged to make all of the many dramatic moments of single note and rolls alike. The orchestra displays all-round virtuosity as one expects of this outstanding ensemble, and plays with authority, great good humour and nigh-perfect precision. The combination of Harnoncourt's historically informed approach and massive enthusiasm for life-affirming music-making and an orchestra on such form is utterly irresistible.

36 - The Linz was written in just a few days of desperate urgency, and reveals a composer at the height of his imaginative powers: a performance as attentive and responsive as this brings out the darker colours and harmonic turns of the atmospheric, Haydn-esque, opening Adagio, matching the intensity of rhythmic attack with tonal control to point the phrasing with just the right weight on the right notes. Once under way in the Allegro, the repeating rhythms generate an unstoppable momentum, and the swaggering strings and roistering wind, brass and timps. clearly feel released by and into the musical argument. The loud tuttis are powerful, gutsy, no-messing blocks of musical energy contrasted with the tremulous string and oboe and bassoon by-play on gently twisting, rising figures, hesitantly creeping up and through to see if it's all clear. The performers bring forward the extremes of this writing, dynamically, of course, but by exploiting to the full their resources of colour and articulation, and more often and more subtly, of fading phrase-endings and controlled placement of single notes and telling moments of orchestral texture. This is grand playing of grandly impressive music - but able to enjoy a hearty laugh, too. For a symphony written in a hurry, this is a long and intricately worked out in a remarkably balanced structure.

Also long is the second movement, a display of inventive variation from a gently lilting stop-go first subject with insistent brass intoning: the main melodic and rhythmic ideas remind one of Haydn's playful quartets, while the colours, and shifts of major to minor, indicate where Beethoven and Schubert would follow. The second section begins with a hushed string search for stability, then a remarkable wind-coloured chord, as striking as a piano accordion squeezing its pain into the texture, followed by the gently lugubrious bassoon's rising scale, which, unpromising as a developmental motif it would seem to most composers, here inspires Mozart to a refined bridge back to the opening theme. A later triplet section continues the unravelling effect as the conjuror's trick of endlessly spun threads pours forth. To all this inventive marvel, Harnoncourt and his players bring dedicated, devoted skills of great refinement and discretion: superb music-making on all levels.

Sharply focused tone and crisply matched articulations between strings and wind, the opening bars of the Menuetto have a flavour less Austro-German than perhaps Italianate or even Slavic, which is welcome, refreshing and highly effective; the Trio more naturally conveys the laendler lilt where double-reed winds distinguish themselves with detailed, delicate rubato and expression; the balance and contrast of this pairing of effects works admirably.

More or less attacca to the last movement, and of particular distinction here are the loudly repeated 2nd violin and viola semiquavers, the crisp quavers from all the strings in the closing group, and the bubbly enthusiasm in all parts. I enjoyed the tightly played grace notes which give an almost folk feel to the snapping figures, yet never going beyond tasteful. The development section is strongly characterised, and the players instinctively and nimbly respond to the quick-shifting figuration, dynamic instructions and high-octane energy level of the writing - outstanding playing.

The sleeve note quotes Paumgartner's comment that the Linz is a masterpiece unwilling to decide between euphoric high spirits and cantabile rapture - this performance conveys thoroughly all of the features of such a dilemma but doesn't leave the listener in any doubt that this is a generously proportioned symphony within which so much of human experience resides, and to some of these conundrums there are no answers, and being left in a state of unknowing is not all bad! On the contrary, the sheer and unremitting pleasure of listening to such music-making is complete.

 

Symphonies 38/39 7 4509-97489-2 [68.29]

38 - The opening of the Prague employs solid tutti chords (full classical woodwind, brass and timps. but no clarinets) to make an arresting and imposing impact - this is music which won't let you go quietly. There is tension in the air, from the flattened sevenths, the gruesome bassoon colours lurking beneath, in the dramatic loud/soft exchanges, and the modal shifts highlighting the potential of the tonic minor and its related keys in a way Mozart had only recently encompassed, but began to use frequently in his last works. The unsettlement continues into the allegro with the syncopated string patterns, and the deliberately off-beat tutti accents.

The players provide much energy and excitement in the excesses of attack ideally suited to this temperamental music, but some of the more sinuous string lines are given rather more romantic, too Romantic, treatment - against the more pungent quasi-natural horn playing which works a treat, this seems too modern a sound, albeit from a great modern orchestra doing their finest to encompass Harnoncourt's eager urgings in historically aware accounts. The middle of the quick music (from halfway through the first section repeat) flows more naturally than the earlier passages where laying out the material is done carefully but just a little self-consciously; once released, the orchestra and the development create a real sense of inspired invention shared by all performers and composer equally, reaching for harmonic roots and finally reverting to the recapitulation only to choose to go in new directions and to enjoy the experience of brand new pathways met by surprise but welcomed keenly. This approach allows tension to build from within the performance and to provide maximum relief at the pleasurable release when returning to home territory. There is much here of genuinely classical, earlier, preciousness, but sudden changes to the newer passionate expression sound suitably convincing to be at times genuinely frightening in the coarse juxtapositions, whilst also providing a balance of chalk and cheese. At almost twenty minutes, this is one of his longest symphonic movements, and by including music of more andante proportions, this first movement contains material enough and variety enough for the two normal first movements of other symphonies. Yet what follows is another andante: the "missing" movement is in fact the minute and trio; this flowing 6/8 could almost be a slow and stately minuet, but from the opening it is clearly not just a dance but a musical argument of similar grandeur to the first movement's cogent working-out. The style - indeed, the themes and orchestration, too - are all very reminiscent of Don Giovanni and Figaro which latter had taken Prague by storm. The playing and direction throughout this movement convey to a nicety the constantly evolving melodic invention, and the darker, sinister horns presaging fateful doom set the hairs tingling on the back of the neck. There is something elemental here, and even Brahmsian in the richness of the texture, not inappropriately. It would be hard to create a more contrasted and more contemporary interpretation: the tonal fullness of modern instruments is needed here to create sonority and weight to match the import of the musical elements, yet the informed fluency of the style is charmingly and satisfyingly accomplished.

The finale hints at Figaro character and themes again; here the lissom and lithe strings tackle the fleet-footed phrases surely and carry us helter-skelter along, exhilarated by the ride, and never at risk of falling off, though there is enough hint of danger for any speed merchant. A very slight quibble is the flute tone, exposed at times as being less focused in the lower register and lower dynamics and not quite carrying the musical line from the violins to the high perfection gained elsewhere. To compensate for this minute carp the entries of the timps. are always sharply made, always varied according to context, and generating a wide range of colour and bite to assist the dramatic and harmonic context as well as to be purely rhythmic in their own right. Again, sudden juxtapositions (tutti/ensemble, loud/soft, major/minor) are the feature of the development section and the orchestra responds unanimously to every moment, knowing that the fit will soon pass and the conclusion is going to be joyful and exuberant as the clouds blow away and the sun brightly bathes all - this is a performance of intelligence, wit and enormous character which serves the music ever so well. Invigorating, refreshing, but thought-provoking, too - enriching on many levels.

39 - The slightly softer woodwind colour of double flutes, clarinets and bassoons, rather than with oboes, and the key of E flat would predict a modified response from Harnoncourt and these players, and indeed this is clear: but the ever-energetic timpanist and brass still manage to invest this noble opening with suitable military might. The strings convey the balancing charm easily enough before setting off the Eroica-like 3/4 Allegro with a perfect tempo, allowing forward drive to be set and maintained yet all rhythmic and decorative detail to be comfortably played and naturally projected. The earthy horn tone in the stronger chords and climaxes, imitating natural horns, provides a welcome change from the refined sinuous colour they create in the opening rising arpeggio, and the tutti chugging chords motor along to grand effect, whilst scales from the introduction rain down in the strings. Within this crotchet pulse there is much variety of accentuation and stress from varied articulations (changed attacks, and stretched first beats, with varied shapes of accent in the bowing and the blowing alike). The development brings out further shifts in tonal and attack control, all well integrated by Harnoncourt to keep the muscular energy rippling purposefully through its exercises to reach a satisfying conclusion in the emphatic recapitulation.

The Andante con moto is more inconsistent in pulse treatment: to be sure there is doubt as to which beats of which bars require extra weight, and this reading delightfully provides some alternatives; but within the string phrasing there sounds to be very occasional lack of unanimity over which stress is expected to make the most interesting version, in both original and repeat versions of the initial crotchet and dotted figure grouping. The more dramatic tutti sections leave one in no doubt as to phrasing and the easing up at the ends of sections to lead back to opening material is gracefully handled. The opera stage is close-by in this expressive and flexible style - leading lines are prominent and ably supported by discrete accompaniments, and the dotted rhythms and syncopations maintain an inner heartbeat to the drama played out. This movement does however have more moments of very slight, but unnecessary, rhythmic untogetherness than most of the movements in this fine set.

So it is no surprise that the Concertgebouw immediately put this right by playing the crisp crotchets of the Menuetto so tightly and crisply (almost a la Beethoven 8's metronome movement) that noone could fault their ensemble. The surprise and delight in the Trio is to give rare and greater prominence to the string oom-cha rhythm rather than as has been the custom to the second clarinet's triplet arpeggios. The changes of tempo between the Menuetto and Trio and back again are handled superbly and without any break in the breathing phrases.

Harnoncourt's penchant for attacca finales works brilliantly here - the rustling scales in strings and wind, and the bristling inner figurations of the middle string parts, are despatched with infectious verve and exhilaration. The delicacy of the dynamic range is slightly compromised, the p and pp not quite so low here as achieved in other similarly marked passages. This performance does bring out well the passages in unexpected and distantly related keys with humour and varied timbre, although an occasionally sharp flute can be discerned in the lower register, in the effort to be push through and be heard. The brisk ending brings this challenging music to a rousing conclusion: if Mozart had indeed intended this to be a riposte to Haydn's 6 Parisian symphonies (the first three of which share the same keys as Mozart's last three great symphonies) or indeed, as the sleeve note suggests, Kozeluh's latest three symphonies, there is plenty of French style and original thinking here amply borne out in this perceptive account.

 

Symphonies 40/41 [74.03] 7 4509-97490-2

40 - Is there more to be said on Mozart's last two great symphonies? - indeed so, as the faster-than-usual first movement Allegro molto of the G minor immediately demonstrates. Although having set off at a fair canter, the reins are held slightly at the end of the first subject group, and a more settled and more conventional, but still brisk, gear is engaged, only to enjoy a further hint of dash before the repeat is made. Such tempo shifts are handled naturally by conductor and players, and do serve to point up the tempestuous invention, although the second statement has more cohesion and consistency and loses nothing in impact - in fact, it sets up well the brilliantly daring development section in which the players make the most of the harmonic sequences to display their involvement in the creative process. Later there are further pushing passages - urgent and determined to get on, and more tenuto sections, especially where wider melodic leaps are negotiated more deliberately. Just occasionally the endings of notes and phrases can appear slightly too sudden for perfectly controlled shaping, but the raw energy of such moment may well be all part of the vision of unleashed natural power.

Also brisk is the andante, aiming for two dotted crotchet pulses per bar rather than a more stately six quavers, and faring generally well by this decision: some of the demisemiquaver figures slightly lose their precise poise, and the possible refinement and dignified grace this movement can convey is sacrificed in a continuing search for rhythmic momentum. The tempo works perfectly for the minor key second section, where the almost hammering repeated quavers of the tutti are violently contrasted with the yearning plangency of the violins. The onward movement also masks some of the more delicious overlapping moments between orchestral colours and melodic motifs, but it serves admirably for the gorgeously toned loud, sustained, chromatically winding, wind chords reminiscent of the serenade writing in the last eight bars of each section; and the written hemiolas benefit from this flowing pulse, creating brief but uplifting moments of rhythmic confusion.

Mozart's predilection for hemiola patterns in the faster Menuettos of his later works encourages a fast but not too fast tempo here, and this enables a lively well-poised spring to inflect each motif - this music surely gave Schubert a nudge when he created the scherzo in his fifth symphony, and here the delicate soft ending of the Menuetto provides a perfect balance to the gritty opening; the Trio is refined and slower, and reveals the wind players in excellent interplay with the strings, matching the shapely arches idiomatically.

The soft levels here are finely done - well restrained, the better to energise the louder contrasts, but also creating both mystery and tension in effect, whilst also setting up the potential for dramatic modulations and transitions, which of course will take place in the renowned development section. This movement holds to a more stable, yet running, pulse, until the first few bars of the development when that urgent push takes over once more - it is undeniably exciting to feel driven, but within the framework of such finely controlled work elsewhere, and where a rigid pulse can hold all the other musical elements in balance it seems a touch gratuitous and unnecessary. Were there more use of tempo fluctuation to specific expressive effect, used as often say as dynamic or accent variation, then there would be a clear purpose. Oddly, the repeat of this section does not convey the same hurrying, and works much better for the unexpected unison notes - still surprising after we've grown familiar with the almost serial-technique gesture of passing through almost every chromatic pitch and after we've already heard Mozart's first statement of this remarkable passage: this surpise has more impact at a well-held tempo. The stormy work concludes still raging wildly, providing a cohesive account of the full four-movement dramatic and symphonic form, one of the first conceived on this larger scale.

41 - Unusually, given Harnoncourt's earlier symphonies in this set, the tempo marking Allegro vivace does not move him to exceed a fairly moderate and stately 4/4, which enables the traditionally festive C major to ring full and proud. This performance is distinctly unwilling to let rip in rhythmic momentum, preferring to take its time over the short melodic fragments which are used obsessively to construct longer passages, rather as Beethoven also would manage later: of particularly wonderful significance are the soft slurred second subject violin phrases in octaves, perfectly toned and tuned in ensemble, and providing a heavenly sweetness to contrast with the godlike grandeur of the pillars of tutti dotted rhythms. Wind players make full use of their falling scale features to colour and guide the development through its various turns, resolving into a neatly articulated recapitulation, where the harmonic surprises are graciously pointed out and pointed up by the strings' dovetailing lines, before the dramatic shift to the beloved Neapolitan relationship, D flat major, which is powerfully placed after a well-extended rest. The movement ends with a sense of security and rightness, and the solidity and apparent simplicity of this unequivocal C major sets the scene for the harmonic and chromatic magic of the Andante cantabile.

The muted string opening is tenderly given, and the velvety tone of the Concertgebouw strings, however modern sounding, seems right in this context and with this judicious control. Much excellent colour and stress is added to the enormous number of lower semitone appoggiaturas in this adventurous writing - both in the nervous violin triplets as in the more extended melodic bends. Perhaps more could have been made of the wind's minor and diminished block chords to create a more characterful colour and a more prominent bite in the way these chords grind against the pedal points; but just a few bars later there is a unique and magical effect of sustained rising wind chromatic crotchets against hushed strings where the firsts' syncopated arpeggios are so quiet as to be only just audible - a brilliantly astute effect. This movement's constant changes of rhythmic division - triplet semis, demisemis, semis - and varied staccato and slurred patterns within lead the way to the greater still third movement of Beethoven's Ninth: these players recognise the connection and play with a nod to the future as well as to the past.

A well-observed Allegretto for the Menuetto provides a gently-paced, constantly lilting quasi-laendler, but with more variety in phrase-lengths, supporting repeated chords, and articulation than would usually be encountered in just a simple country dance; without reaching bacchanalian excess, there is a mildly oiled response to the bucolic potential, but these countryfolk won't allow themselves to get even mildly intoxicated. The Trio is even more graceful and just a little steadier, allowing for delicately placed phrasing from oboe and firsts in particular. This restrained version's intent enables the movement to feel longer than it might and so balance better the stronger, longer outer movements - it also allows the last movement to begin with immediately a gutsier and more ebullient gesture in the first tutti, prefaced by a disarmingly coy soft opening. The rhythmic definition is very fine throughout this brilliantly virtuosic account, with all moving parts ideally balanced in their contrapuntal patterns. The occasional additional crescendi on building phrases and repeated units are entirely appropriate and add enormously to the invigorating effect. Particularly stirring, this movement's performance is one of the jewels in the series, with a recorded sound which enables all the varying and important features and strands of the counterpoint to be clearly appreciated and heard in an ideal hierarchy: the gathering impetus towards the inevitable conclusion and the final statements of the simplest of four-note motifs is irresistibly rewarding and satisfying.

Harking back to the past, to church music, Bachian fugues, to Vivaldi ritornelli, yet entirely new in its vital forward momentum through all elements, this stirring and remarkable writing provides a fitting conclusion both to Mozart's great symphonic output and to this outstanding series of recordings by the acutely perceptive and original Harnoncourt and the minutely responsive Concertgebouw, marrying the best of modern orchestral sound with historically aware interpretation.

 

Colin Touchin

 

 



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