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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Les Plus Belles Symphonies

Symphony no.25
Symphony no.26
Symphony no.28
Recorded Amsterdam Concertgebouw, June 1983 (K.183), Jan./Feb. 1988 (K.184 and K.200)
Symphony no.35 in D, K.385 "Haffner"
Symphony no.36 in C, K.425, "Linz"
Recorded Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Nov. 1980 (K.385), Nov. 1984 (K.425),
Symphony no.38 in D, K.504, "Prague"
Symphony no.39 in Eb, K.543
Recorded Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Sept. 1981 (K.505), June 1984 (K.543)
Symphony no.40 in G minor, K.550
Symphony no.41 in C, K.551, "Jupiter"
Recorded Amsterdam Concertgebouw, June 1983 (K.550), March 1982 (K.551)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
TELDEC CLASSICS 5046 68288-2 [75:00+62:18+68:29+74:03]


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 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! Greta music-making.

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!

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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