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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe - 25th Anniversary
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K504 “Prague” [38:09]
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K543 [31:14]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 [35:54]
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K551 “Jupiter” [40:39]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Vienna, 1991; Graz, 1993. DDD
Bonus CD of excerpts from other recordings by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Douglas Boyd [79:11]
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 63067-2
[3 CDs: 69:38 + 77:13 + 79:11]
 

Though issued to mark the silver jubilee of the CoE this set also marks another happy anniversary. As we read in the booklet, it was twenty years ago, in 1986, that Nikolaus Harnoncourt first conducted the orchestra. That collaboration, which continues to this day, is one of the two most important musical relationships in the orchestra’s distinguished history, the other being with their founder conductor, Claudio Abbado.
 
These recordings of the last four symphonies of Mozart show the relationship between Harnoncourt and the CoE at its brilliant best. There are times when I’ve heard performances – and recordings – of music by Mozart and have felt that players and conductor are familiar – perhaps too familiar – with the notes and are just skating over the surface. That’s far from being the case here. One gets the feeling that every phrase, every note has been carefully reconsidered. That’s not to say, however, that these are studied readings for a spirit of spontaneity is present throughout, which I greatly welcome. As far as I’m aware the CoE play on modern instruments but there’s a keen appreciation of the practices of period instrumentalists so, for example, vibrato is kept to a minimum. I suspect that natural trumpets are used, as was the case in the same artists’ revelatory Beethoven symphony cycle, recorded in 1990 and 1991. It also sounds as if the timpanist is not using modern drums and he most certainly uses hard sticks, producing some very satisfying and dynamic ‘thwacks’.
 
Perhaps the most successful performance of all is that of the “Jupiter”. Harnoncourt and his players give a spirited account of the first movement, with plenty of drama and excitement. In the second movement I relish the way that Harnoncourt brings out the lower instruments in the orchestra to give a dark brown richness to the sonority. As we shall see, there are reservations about the speeds that Harnoncourt adopts for the minuets in Symphonies 39 and 40 but, oddly, that’s not the case here and I wonder why that should be so. Here, the music seems to me to be taken at a pretty ideal speed. The contrapuntal miracle that is the finale of the “Jupiter” is superb. The orchestral playing fairly fizzes, Harnoncourt brings out all the strands of the argument and the movement is exuberantly joyful.
 
Symphony 38 is also very well done. The introduction to the first movement is darkly powerful and dramatic. Harnoncourt seems to be reminding us that the composition of this work was contemporaneous with performances of Don Giovanni in the city from which the symphony takes its name. Here the contribution of the timpani and brass is thrilling. The main allegro feels just right; there’s great drive in the performance but the music never sounds driven and Harnoncourt can relax and smile when appropriate. He ensures that his players observe all accents and that they use them constructively, as Mozart intended, as a crucial part of the musical argument. The Andante is taken at a flowing speed, which I can imagine some listeners might find a trifle hasty. I think it works well, not least because the sense of grace is never sacrificed. The concluding Presto of this three-movement symphony bubbles like sparkling wine. Though the speed is very fast I don’t feel the accelerator is pressed too far to the floor. In fact, to me it sounds exhilarating.
 
The introduction to Symphony 39 is as powerful and thrusting as the comparable pages in the previous work. The Allegro itself is beautifully paced, as is the Andante con moto that follows. However, I don’t find the third movement at all satisfactory. The marking is Menuetto Allegretto but the chosen tempo seems to bear little relation to this instruction. The speed is simply too fast for a minuet – this is not a scherzo – and, worse still, Harnoncourt indulges in slight but very noticeable modifications within the basic tempo, slowing to make expressive points. I stand to be corrected, for Harnoncourt is a fastidiously accurate musician, but I don’t believe such nudges to the basic pulse are authentic. The trio is taken at a speed that’s markedly slower and while I actually like the tempo at which the trio is taken, which has just the right amount of ländler lilt, the speed feels wrong relative to that adopted for the music that surrounds the trio. The finale is splendid. It’s paced to perfection in my view and the music sounds really festive and exciting.
 
The first movement of the G minor symphony sounds suitably lithe in Harnoncourt’s hands. The Andante is quite brisk. I rather like the easy flow of this reading though I can imagine some people feeling that the music doesn’t relax sufficiently. Once again the Menuetto is controversially fast. After several hearings of both this symphony and No. 39 I can’t come to terms with this, I’m afraid. As I commented above, I can’t quite understand why Harnoncourt is more conventional in his pacing of the comparable movement of the “Jupiter”. The finale of No. 40 is surprisingly steady, especially after the whirlwind Menuetto. I compared this account with that by John Eliot Gardiner in his 1989 Philips recording (426 315-2) and found that Gardiner takes approximately ninety seconds less than Harnoncourt in this movement. I like very much the quicksilver urgency that Gardiner brings to this movement but Harnoncourt brings extra weight without ever sounding weighty and I enjoyed his performance very much.
 
With a couple of reservations, then, these are excellent performances. The playing of the CoE is absolutely superb throughout and for the most part Harnoncourt’s direction is sure-footed. Even where I find myself unable to agree with his interpretative decisions it’s clear that those decisions have been arrived at after very careful thought. These stimulating and brilliantly executed performances will give much pleasure. Warner Classics also include a sampler disc of fifteen short tracks taken from the CoE’s discography. Most of these are conducted by Harnoncourt though Douglas Boyd takes the baton for two short pieces by Walton. The repertoire ranges from Vivaldi through Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann to Dvořák but this sampler is scarcely a reason for buying the set.

John Quinn
 

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