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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Early Symphonies - Vol. 2
Sinfonia in D, K 97/73m (1770) [9:36]
Sinfonia in D, [K111 and K 120/111a] (1771) [6:34]
Sinfonia in G, K124 (1772) [14:02]
Sinfonia in D, K141a (1772) [7:11]
Sinfonia in C, K162 (1773) [8:40]
Sinfonia in E-flat, K184/166a (1773) [8:16]
Sinfonia in F, K199/162a (1773) [22:20]
Sinfonia in g, K183 (1773) [27:25]
Sinfonia in D, [K196 and K127/207a] (1775) [7:14]
Menuetto and Trio in C, K409/383f (1782) [7:09]
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Dec 1999 and Dec 2000 Kasino Zögernitz, Vienna
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 82876 75736 2 [54:16 + 64:10]

Much as we love these works, it is hard sometimes to gather a great deal of excitement when seeing yet another release of Mozart symphonies. After all, these pieces have been recorded time and time again. In this, our Mozart year, it was all too predictable — a flurry of Mozart recordings was forecast and it appears the skies have opened. For some time, I’ve been quite happy with my Christopher Hogwood series recorded in the 1980s for L’Oiseau Lyre with the Academy of Ancient Music. Other recordings came my way, but it was the Hogwood that I returned to most consistently.
Along comes Nikolaus Harnoncourt with a newly-released continuation of his Mozart symphony series, with this volume covering works written starting in 1770. Harnoncourt recently made a rather angry speech at the opening ceremonies for the Mozart Year in the Salzburg Festspielhaus expressing his dislike of the commercial aspects of the Mozart year and that Mozart needs no further words praising him. The focus, he said, should instead be on the music. One raises an eyebrow perhaps regarding his commentary on commercialism and the timing of this release, but as he makes clear, the focus should be on the music. And so it is: here we have a quite different approach to Mozart, which, despite my admittedly rather jaded initial state of mind made me soon take notice after I had pushed “Play” and settled into my chair. The performance here has an immediacy and at times an urgency that is missing from most recordings of these symphonies.
K97, the symphony “41” of the Breitkopf and Härtel edition, serves as our opening example, with Beethovenian shifts to minor, mirroring the 7th symphony of that later master. The final Presto is a gem of a movement. Beethovenian would be a great descriptor of Harnoncourt’s approach. The performances here have a consistent sense of immediacy and power, strong rhythm, and drive. Hogwood has a more stately approach in comparison, with less contrast. More often than not, Harnoncourt has slightly faster tempi, but the real difference is Harnoncourt’s great success in bringing out the joyfulness of the music, especially in the final movements of each work, especially so in the Symphony No. 50, K141a and the also-brief Presto of The Symphony 22 in C, K162. Hogwood is more reserved, with his harpsichord continuo in front just beneath the strings. Harnoncourt does not include the continuo and focuses more intently on dynamics as well as orchestral colour; in the Andante grazioso of the K162 he brings out the oboes more, which provides a greater contrast to the statement of the strings.
The Symphony No. 26, K184/166a further shows excellent use of orchestral colour. In the opening movement is the surprise of the brass, then the flute. In Hogwood, a more restrained tutti and a more homogenous sound tends to be more two-dimensional to the ear. I’ve loved the touching section in the Andante with the repeated note in the violins while the orchestra moves through its poignant chord changes behind. Harnoncourt restrains the violins here to focus on the chord changes before launching into the final Allegro, which comes off as far more celebratory. Here is Mozart as precursor to Beethoven.
On the second disc we have the “Little” symphony in G minor K183. Harnoncourt mentions in the liner notes the “deathly” quality to this key and how this music must have unsettled its first listeners. In his opening speech mentioned above, he commented on this aspect of the symphony, drawing a connecting line to this symphony’s larger younger brother, the Symphony in G-minor K550. Harnoncourt notes that the ability of Mozart’s music to unsettle in these two symphonies has been muted in past recordings and performances. In the performance here of the K183, he certainly shows us what he meant. The opening Allegro con brio churns, then fades to regret before taking up the tension yet again. The performance here is not of a museum piece, but of a work that is immediate. A wonderful listening experience.
Overall the recording aesthetic of these works fits the performance aesthetic: immediate and close, with superior definition. Hogwood’s recordings are more subdued, more distantly miked, and not as bright in sound. The dynamics are more narrow as well — not all of this should be attributed to the interpretation — Hogwood uses period instruments, not to mention twenty years have elapsed since that recording. Harnoncourt opts for modern instruments*, which means that he has more power at his disposal. Overall, to these ears, this release is a riveting performance of these early pieces. It appears I may have a new favourite.
David Blomenberg

* as a result of much discussion on the MusicWeb Bulletin Board I think we have established that Harnocourt is also using original instruments as is his normal practive.


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