As part of their Mozart 250th Anniversary Edition Warner
Classics have released a substantial survey of Mozart’s symphonies
consisting of previously released material from their generous
back catalogue. This celebratory super-budget priced set contains
twenty-three Mozart symphonies commencing with the early No.
17 in G major, K129 from the year 1772 to the final Symphony
No. 41 in C major, K551 ‘Jupiter’ from 1788. The
conductors are Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
with fifteen symphonies and Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque
Orchestra with eight symphonies using period-instruments. The
recordings were made over an eleven year period commencing in
1980 at three different European locations.
As a filler the set includes the Six German Dances
for orchestra, K571 and Les Petits Riens for orchestra,
K299b performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Raymond
Leppard. These were recorded back in 1982 and 1983 at the Queen’s
Mozart’s first symphonies were most likely influenced
by those of Johan Christian Bach and also Carl Abel, with whom
Mozart came into contact when visiting England in 1764 as an
eight year old. The scores, like those of J.C. Bach were usually
in the three movement form of the Italian Overture. Development
of themes was scant. These very early symphonies are rarely
recorded and performed and do not feature here.
The first symphony here is No. 17. The work is
one of a set of eight (K114, K124, K 128-130, and K132-134)
that Mozart composed between the death of his patron Prince-Archbishop
von Schrattenbach in December 1771 and his departure to Italy
in October 1772. These are good-humoured and inventive works,
composed for orchestral performers that Mozart knew personally.
At this time Mozart began to work for his new and less lenient
employer, the Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, who had definite ideas about the role of music in his court
and church. More
noticeably developed are the seven symphonies that Mozart produced
following his last visit to Italy between April 1773 and May
1774 (K162, K181, K184 and K199-202).
Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra perform
the eight symphonies that span the first two discs of
the set (K129. K130, K132, K134, K162, K181, K182 and K199).
Koopman recorded these in the Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem between
1989 and 1991. The recordings achieved considerable critical
acclaim when they were originally released on the Erato label
in 1991 and 1992 and this is understandable owing to the high
quality of the performances. Koopman using period-informed
performance practice is
in total control with judiciously chosen tempos and his authentic-instrument
orchestra play with astonishing accomplishment. I was especially
struck by the abundance of vitality and the rhythmic drive in
the allegros. The impressive Koopman ensures that the playing
in the slow movements is sympathetic, expressive and stately.
The string sections of many period-instrument orchestras are
often accused of being harsh and abrasive but this is not the
case here as the Amsterdam strings are consistently clear and
smooth. I was also impressed with the silvery-tone of the woodwind
but less so with the tuning from the brass. There is some uncomfortable
blaring from the brass in the louder passages.
Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw feature on the next
six discs with the remaining fifteen symphonies ( K183
‘Little’ G minor, K184, K200-202, K297 ‘Paris’, K318, K319, K338,
K385 ‘Haffner’, K425 ‘Linz’, K504 ‘Prague’,
K543, K550 and K551 ‘Jupiter’). These symphonies have
all been released previously on the Warner Classic, Teldec and
Returning to Salzburg after a short visit to Vienna in
the summer of 1773, Mozart’s understanding of the genre took
another step forward. Symphony K.202 is primarily celebratory
in mood, but in Symphonies K183, K200 and K201 we find
works whose expressive means, grace and musical expression are
on a new level. These are the earliest of Mozart’s symphonies
to earn a place in the repertoire.
‘Little’ G minor Symphony, K183 has a far
different temperament, primarily due to the key and was the
first symphony that Mozart had written in a minor mode. The
only other Mozart composed in a minor key is the ‘Great’
G minor Symphony No. 40. The four movement K183
is a score justly celebrated for its expressive power, almost
certainly inspired by the turbulent minor-key Sturm und Drang
symphonies of the time of Haydn, Vanhal and others. The
anger and frustration
infused into the score
rise to a seriousness of expression not previously encountered.
It has an unusual scoring for four rather than the orthodox
two horn parts.
In the ‘Little’
Symphony Harnoncourt continues the striking rhythmic
momentum throughout the passionate and intense restiveness of
the first movement, providing plenty of bite and vitality. The
soft and subtle, yet bright andante provides welcome emotional relief, and the ebb and flow
is expertly maintained with an unrelenting pendulum-like
The short and robust menuetto of the ‘Little’ G minor Symphony is a rather gloomy affair with an air of discontent that
lacks the boldness and daring of later corresponding movements.
Containing two main themes, both sensitive in nature, it is
given a highly controlled and balanced reading. The finale
is vigorous and thrilling amid the scampering restlessness and
stormy atmosphere of the movement.
K200 is a work of boisterous energy and spirit and K201,
from its, broad serene opening to its playful finale
is perhaps the finest and certainly the most popular of the
early works. After this burst of symphonic activity Mozart’s
productivity dropped dramatically, no doubt as disillusionment
set in with the regime of his patron the austere Archbishop
In March 1778, Mozart keen to escape the frustrations
of his position in Salzburg and perhaps to search out a more
congenial employment, travelled with his mother Anna
Maria to the
bustling and more cosmopolitan city of Paris arriving on the
23rd. Whilst on the journey his mother’s health began to seriously
deteriorate; tragically she died after a short illness in Paris
on 3rd July. Career-wise Paris did not live up to his expectations
either and his only real success in that six month period was
the triumph of his Symphony No. 31 K297 ‘Paris’
composed for the influential Concert Spirituel. Possibly as
some form as catharsis Mozart threw himself into his work and
the score to the K297 was completed and premièred within weeks
of his mother’s tragic death.
Jean Le Gros, director of the Concert Spirituel was unhappy
with the slow movement and the compliant Mozart wrote a replacement.
Both versions of the movement are recorded here. Mozart scored
the ‘Paris’ for the largest orchestra he had used so
far; utilising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns,
2 trumpets, timpani and strings.
Here Mozart was using clarinets in a symphony for the first
time. Harnoncourt offers confident playing of considerable delicacy
and wit in the opening movement marked allegro assai.
Here we have a staccato string passage that is repeated
four times in modulation which Mozart stated was sure to please
the Parisian audience. The contrasting moods of the original
second movement andante are performed with smooth and
gentle playing of an impressively seamless nature. The waltz-like
second subject is especially well defined. Vigorous playing
here brings out the hard brilliance of the short closing movement
allegro, providing an effectively vivacious conclusion.
In Mozart’s shorter replacement version of the andante Harnoncourt
focuses with considerable success on the charming and exalted
nature of the music .
Returning to Salzburg in 1779, Mozart was undoubtedly
a changed and somewhat chastened man. His symphonies now began
to take on a richer and more personal character. Three symphonies
date from these last years in Salzburg. Both K318 and K338 (composed
in April 1779 and August 1780 respectively) are powerful works
in their way. K319 from July 1779, is less brilliant and not
as aggressive as its contemporaries, being of an amiable nature
and modest scoring; a reversion to what the Austrians at that
time expected from a symphony. In professional terms Mozart
may have been marking time during this period in Salzburg between
1778-79, yet in these three symphonies we glimpse him armed
for the greatness to come.
In 1781, Mozart finally severed his ties with the Salzburg
court, when he decided to make Vienna his home and to take a
chance as a freelance composer and performer.
The imperial capital offered the kind of home and independence
and cultural musical milieu that Mozart had not known
in Salzburg. The composer’s response was to write music whose
growing emotion and intellectual reach would, together with
the works of his friend Haydn, define the sophisticated and
subtle expressiveness of the high Classical style.
Mozart’s first ‘Viennese’ symphony, K385 was actually
composed for the ennoblement of a family friend Sigmund Haffner, son of the Salzburg Burgomaster, who lived in Salzburg. Composed in Vienna in the summer
of 1782 the Symphony No. 35 in D major, K385 became known
as the ‘Haffner’. In four movements and scored for 2 oboes, (2 flutes and 2 clarinets were added later,)
2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings, the work
underwent considerable revision before its
first performance in March 1783 in Vienna. Ironically, there is doubt that the ‘Haffner’ was completed in time or that the ennoblement ceremony ever took place.
The ‘Haffner’ is a hybrid, most probably refashioned from a score that contained five
movements (making it a Serenade in form). An introductory
march and a second minuet was originally placed
between the opening allegro and the slow central movement.
Mozart removed both these movements and added flutes and clarinets
to the first and last movements, thus turning it into a symphony,
for the prestigious ‘Wiener Akademien’ performance attended
by Emperor Joseph II, in March 1783.
became the most popular symphony Mozart had written up
to that date. The joyous opening allegro con spirito
is astonishing for its economy of means. Mozart broke with the
convention by omitting a contrasting second theme. The unusual
single theme has the strength and forceful presence to carry
the opening on its own. Harnoncourt offers plenty of bite with committed playing
that is noble and refined. True
in feeling and atmosphere to its Serenade origin, the
lengthy andante movement is a simple direct statement
of a romantic song followed by an even more sensitive passage.
With aristocratic grace the players allow Mozart’s great melodic
gift to shine through. This is superb silky smooth and light
playing that conveys moments of magical hushed softness. Although
one is loath to criticize Mozart, despite the quality of the
playing the movement seems overlong. Commencing vigorously before
the more pastoral mood of the trio is introduced, the
third movement menuetto is typically ‘Mozartean’ in its
sophistication and vivaciousness. The impeccable playing here
is scrupulously clean and crisp. For the final movement presto
Mozart borrows a tune from his newly-completed opera The
Abduction from the Seraglio. Mozart instructed that the
romping rondo, “…must be played as quickly as possible.”
In a whirlwind flourish the Amsterdam players perform with breathless
momentum and genuine sparkling energy.
That same year Mozart and his new wife Constanze Weber on the way back from visiting Salzburg
stopped at the town of Linz and hastily arranged a concert.
Having no symphony with him Mozart hurriedly composed one from
scratch, in just six days, and the resulting D major score
became known as the ‘Linz’. The ‘Linz’, K425 is a robust work in four movements with a
‘Haydnesque’ quality, not least in its use, for the first time
in a Mozart symphony, of a slow introduction.
Mozart’s final four symphonies set a new level
of achievement for the genre, both in terms of their compositional
resource and for their unprecedented seriousness and expressive
depth. The standard of orchestral performance in Vienna, especially
the woodwind playing, was excellent. Mozart became increasingly
acquainted with the music of J.S. Bach and Handel. As a consequence
the Symphony No. 38 in D major, K504 ‘Prague’
assimilates Mozart’s use of counterpoint with an ever greater
insistence and subtlety into the fabric of the music.
Marriage of Figaro,
introduced at the Burgtheater in Vienna on May 1, 1786 gave
Mozart the greatest public success he was ever to enjoy in his
brief life. As triumphant as the Vienna première was, the response
was greater still in Prague the following winter. In January
1787 Mozart and his wife made an extended visit to the Bohemian
capital, where he was lionised as the hero of the hour. Besides
raising his spirits the sojourn in Prague brought Mozart a commission
for an opera Don Giovanni which was to become one of
the greatest works ever written for the stage. In Prague Mozart
not only conducted at least one performance of The Marriage
of Figaro, but also directed the premiere of the new ‘Prague’ K504 that he had composed the
previous month. The enthusiasm of the audience on that occasion
was so great that Mozart was compelled, as an encore, to improvise
at the piano for nearly an hour.
The ‘Prague’ is Mozart’s last three movement symphony and in its
emotional substance and carefully worked structure, it has little
in common with the slender operatic works of earlier years.
The ‘Prague’ is
sometimes referred to in Germany as the Symphony ohne menuett
(without minuet). While Mozart had written such symphonies
in his earlier years, this is the only one among the half-dozen
composed in his Viennese years that does not contain a menuetto.
What is far more unusual is that all three movements are in
sonata form, a phenomenon perhaps unduplicated among Classical
symphonies. The score prescribes
the largest orchestra that Mozart had ever used in a symphony,
with flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs
and timpani and strings.
The extended opening movement, at over nineteen minutes,
is the longest Mozart wrote by some considerable distance. The
movement seems overlong but it almost feels like an act of heresy
to criticize Mozart from the armchair. This is highly dramatic
music, full of vigour and with that peculiarly alarming Mozartean
undercurrent of tragedy. The opening to the adagio is
of tremendous breadth and of a significance that demands a substantial,
muscular allegro; Mozart doesn’t disappoint. The increasing
intensity of the development section of the opening movement
is one of the greatest, most serious and most aggressive in
all of Mozart’s works. The Royal Concertgebouw and Harnoncourt
perform with an engaging sensitivity in the eloquent tension
of the slow introduction. This contrasts with the power and
energy of their big-boned performance.
In the lengthy second movement andante drums and
trumpets are dispensed with. It is remarkable how one lovely
idea succeeds another in a most logical progression. After the
strength of the opening movement the placid andante comes
as a welcome relief. The music takes on a sweetly lyrical
character that seems to be on the verge of being overwhelmed
with more tensions. However, the movement carries extraordinary
emotional weight. The polished and expressive playing
nevertheless communicates an impressive sense of purity.
The perceptive critic Albert Einstein said of the closing
movement presto that, “despite the appearance of cheerfulness
and a feeling of completeness, [it] leaves a wound in the soul;
beauty is wedded to death.” The movement is
characterised by wit and fire contrasted with graceful passages. The interpretation conveys exuberance and
dash with that necessary element of orchestral bite.
The last three mighty symphonies K543, K550 and K551
were all composed in Vienna in 1789, amazingly in the short
space of only six weeks. In these last few years of his life
there was no let-up in Mozart’s prodigious creativity. Composer
and musicologist Julius Harrison has described this triumvirate
of symphonies as “A trilogy of happiness, melancholy and
strength, [they] seem to contain between them the quintessential
features of symphonic art; perfect models for all time, both
architecturally and emotionally.” There seem to be no records
of these famous symphonies receiving performances in Mozart’s
lifetime. The reasons for their composition is unknown but it
seems inconceivable that they were not intended for performances
that Mozart was planning for the autumn.
The untitled Symphony No. 39 in E flat major,
K543 is the least well known of the three, yet it is the most
lyrical in character. Mozart seemed easily to detach himself
artistically from the difficulties of his personal life as demonstrated
here. At this time he was in the depths of despair, oppressed
by debts, the inability to secure suitable employment and by
fears for the future. Yet none of these anxieties seem to intrude
into this music, which is consistently carefree and in love
with the world. Musicologist Elizabeth
Schwarm Glesner has provided a wonderful description of K543,
“like the finest of Mozart’s works, a felicitous blend of
joyful exuberance and sombre introspection, delicate smiles
and hearty laughter, carefully counter-balancing each other
through the ebb and flow of ever-changing melodies. There are
graceful themes for strings and perky ones for woodwinds, particularly
for clarinets, which stood high in the composer’s affections
at this point in his career. Taken in its entirety, the Symphony
No. 39 is refreshing to the ear, its pleasures only intensified
by the fact that it is not much performed. Here is a work of
inspiration that, due to its rarity, can still surprise and
for flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets,
timpani and strings the
E flat major has a hint of autumnal melancholy about
it that is only fully dispelled by the high spirits of the finale.
It follows the four movement
design that by the 1780s had become the usual format of its
genre. Unlike them, its design includes an adagio introduction
to begin the first movement. The adagio begins in a splendid,
ceremonial manner which in Harnoncourt’s
hands is imperial-sounding. The
movement then becomes quiet and expectant, its mounting sense
of anticipation making the onset of the ensuing energetic and
confident allegro all the more effective. The omission
of oboes imparts a darker, more mellow timbre. Here there is
control. Nothing sounds hectic or rushed.
Harrison described the slow movement andante as, “Perfect
melody, developed contrapuntally with deepest feeling and skill
and with the loveliest instrumentation imaginable.” The
movement begins softly and placidly with a particularly graceful
theme. Mozart develops some dark harmonies and stormy textures
although these outbursts never last long. Maestro Harnoncourt effortlessly allows these elements to combine to create a beautiful and seemingly
nocturnal atmosphere. The third movement allegretto presents
a robust minuet whose central episode, or ‘trio’
passage, uses an Alpine-like folk dance melody on the clarinet.
Although well performed Harnoncourt could I feel could have
obtained livelier playing from his orchestra. Mozart constructs
the allegro: finale on a single swift and energetic
theme. As in Haydn’s finales, this subject proves the
source of myriad developments, as Mozart varies and extends
it in a variety of imaginative ways. The music is performed
with an abundance of energy and vivaciousness to provide an
effervescent swagger to the proceedings.
The Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 known as
the ‘Great G minor’, is a deeply emotional work, transforming
the more conventional minor-key utterances of K183 into an intensely
moving meeting of the tragic and the idyllic. It is small wonder
that this work of sombre and dramatic power was one of the most
influential of all Mozart’s’ works in the century that followed
his death. In the ‘Great G minor’ score Mozart uses a
flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and strings,
omitting clarinets, trumpets and timpani; although he added
back the clarinets in a later revision.
There is no introduction to the first movement of No.
40. The famous opening theme is particular eloquent and
dramatic; a complete musical sentence and longer than most.
Throughout the movement Mozart explores an extensive range of
feelings and emotion. The performance here highlights the agitation
and drama, contrasting with lyrical repose and a graceful melody
tinged with melancholy.
is an even more pronounced suggestion of melancholy in the andante.
Harnoncourt expertly draws out the suggestion of dark undercurrents
of mystery and foreboding. A robust and military sounding minuetto
leads into a lyrical trio in which the timbres of
the various choirs are contrasted. Harnoncourt and his Amsterdam
orchestra play sensitively and persuasively, never forcing or
giving excessive weight.
unique character of the finale provides a study in extreme
contrasts right from the opening. An ascending subject in the
strings, to which the full orchestra replies, endows the finale
with a nervous energy that persists throughout the movement.
In the recapitulation, new depths of feeling are explored. Throughout
the closing movement Harnoncourt tightens his grip with a performance
of strong purpose, yet he never succumbs to the temptation to
The Symphony No. 41 in C major, K551 ‘Jupiter’
takes the world of festive ceremonial as its starting point,
but populates it with a subtle range of moods, before culminating
in a finale of stunning contrapuntal bravado. Devised
in four movements the work is scored for flute and pairs of
oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums with strings; although
clarinets are absent. The epithet ‘Jupiter’ was not Mozart’s.
It appears to have been given to this most popular of Mozart’s
symphonies having originated in England around 1820. Musicologist
Philip Hale finds nothing in it to remind him of Jupiter,
stating, “The music is not of an Olympian mood. It is intensely
human in its loveliness and gaiety.”
are numerous light and playful episodes amid the majesty and
nobility of the opening allegro. Here Harnoncourt and
the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra lack their usual fluency.
Their playing seems heavy and ponderous at times, with the effect
of dragging the music along.
In the andante there are overtones of tragedy. The feeling
of despair grows increasingly intense. This is a world of poignant
contemplation, yearning and distress. In Harnoncourt’s hands
the mood comes across as languid and perhaps a touch too tentative,
almost an awkward floating around without real direction. The
Mozartian lightness of touch returns in the menuetto with
soft and graceful melodies for the violins. The minuet
and trio are unusually rich and complicated, both musically
and emotionally, for all their plain, traditional dance forms.
Harnoncourt’s reading does not do the movement full justice,
and is slow and lumbering, maintaining a rather leaden approach
consummate contrapuntal skill and imagination of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony reaches a high point in the famous molto allegro:
finale; this makes a most powerful impact. The finale
represents one of the greatest examples of development in music
and is as celebrated as any single movement in eighteenth-century
music. Commencing innocently with four simple notes it transforms
into one of the most complex pieces of music ever written, a
tour de force of classical counterpoint, with an incomparable
fugal coda. In this movement Harnoncourt and his Amsterdam
players awake from their slumber. Their playing is vigorous,
exuberant and ebullient, wonderfully blending the forward momentum
of the score with impressive inner detailing. Bravo!
In conclusion, the digital recordings of the Symphonies
17-19, 21-24 and 27 are now sixteen years old, yet sound
as fresh as if they had been recorded yesterday. The period-instrument
sound is simply wonderful. Many of the
earlier pioneering interpretations using period-instruments
were dictated by the severe limitations of their instruments.
Consequently the performance style often came across as technically
mechanical, rather lacklustre, frequently insipid and even sterile.
As demonstrated by this recording the standard of authentic-instrument
performance improved in leaps and bounds, thanks largely to
a generation of specialist authentic instrument exponents that
came to prominence on the period-instrument
scene. Koopman can be
proud of these performances. They are notable for their judiciously chosen tempos with astonishingly accomplished
The digital recordings of the Symphonies 25, 26, 28-36
and 38-41 have been in circulation, over a period
of between seventeen and twenty-five years. There is absolutely
no need to worry as these superb performances are fresh, expressive
and stylish; providing tremendous pleasure. Conductor and players
skilfully combine the very best modern instrument sound with
historically informed performance practice. Harnoncourt’s speeds
are generally on the swifter side in interpretations that are
robust and vital, offering tremendous insights into these wonderful
scores. The sound engineers are to be congratulated on their
high quality seven year recording assignment in the Amsterdam
are excellent recordings. However, I have several personal favourite
versions from my own collection that I would not wish to be
without. These include:
Nos. 33 and 35
with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Iona Brown
on Hänssler Classics 94.003.
Nos. 35 and 36
with the Prague Philharmonia under Jirí Belohlávek on Harmonia
Mundi HMC 901891.
Nos. 35 and 38-41
with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Colin Davis on Philips-
Nos. 35, 40 and
41 with The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell on Sony
Nos. 35, 36 and 38-41
with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Karl Böhm on
Deutsche Grammophon ‘The Originals’ series 447 416-2.
particular favourite of all the Mozart recordings that I have
heard is the critically acclaimed and award winning accounts
of the Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41 with the Vienna
Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein on Deutsche Grammophon
‘Masters’ series 445 548-2.
The Six German Dances, K571 and the ballet music
Les Petits Riens, K299b performed by the Scottish Chamber
Orchestra under Raymond Leppard were recorded at the Queen’s
Hall, Edinburgh in November 1982 and March 1983 respectively.
The German Dances were composed in Vienna in 1789 and
are of great orchestral splendour. They form a small unified
cycle of truly symphonic spirit. The ballet music Les Petits
Riens was composed in Paris in 1778 as an interlude in Niccolò Piccinni’s opera
Le finte gemelle (The
Fake Twins). The score, which comprises an overture
and thirteen pieces, is
a substantial work at almost twenty minutes in length. Apparently
the ballet music achieved a certain amount of success for Mozart
and was performed several times. Interpreted with vitality and
style these are outstandingly characterful accounts of the two
scores which reveal the works as more than mere fillers.
This set is highly recommended. The high quality sound
is cool, vivid and well balanced. I just love the consistent
purity and nobility of the playing which is marvellously assured
and refined. There is never any Romantic wallowing and the performances
are characterful but never overacted.