This is Part 1 of
‘Kent Nagano conducts classical masterpieces’, six DVDs which
individually feature a concert performance of a symphony plus
an extensive documentary about the work and its performance.
I’ve already welcomed Part 2, Beethoven’s Eroica (review).
Mozart’s Jupiter is of equally stimulating quality.
The opening loud
phrase is weighty but the immediate soft response of velvety
charm. The first tutti is invigoratingly boisterous with
rasping semiquaver figurations in second violins and violas.
The second theme (tr. 2 1:54) is sleeker yet everything is in
place: the violins’ proposition, cellos and basses’ response,
the addition of bassoon and then flute to the violins, now the
vaunting cellos and basses’ proposition (2:17), amiably dismissed
by the first violins. This is all crystal clear but also has
dramatic point. The third theme (3:01) makes a sweet and merry
end to the exposition but is also the energizer of the development
before Nagano calms things gracefully and glides into the fake
recapitulation (7:39). This leads to a stormier second development
but calms again before long and here the flutes, oboes and bassoons
seem to have a good long giggle to usher in the true recapitulation
(8:21). Nagano’s weight has authority yet also a refined edge,
it’s not the raw, stark kind and this seems appropriate for
Mozart, at least on modern instruments. But neither does it
In the slow movement
a clear contrast is made between the quiet, dreamily tender
strings’ phrases and loud quaver chords on strings and wind.
Nagano makes these chords firm and keenly felt, but not brutal,
a wake-up element of reality alongside the reverie. This juxtaposition
continues through the movement so an equable balance of this
kind is fitting. The second theme (tr. 3 13:16) is really more
of a development motif, where the contrasts become more tense.
But that in turn seems largely a foil for the warm, gently curvaceous
third theme (14:00) on oboes and bassoons, more like a measured
sigh. Its chief role is to elicit a delicate, hauntingly poignant
response from the first violins to which the flute provides
a kind of mirror reflection. The development proper (18:34)
expands the second theme material yet, consistently with his
earlier practice, Nagano gives it a more plaintively sorrowful
than anguished cast. In any case the mood is assuaged by the
balm of a series of arabesques from second violins, bassoon,
oboe and flute in turn. What also struck me about this movement
in Nagano’s hands is that, for all its humanity, it has a pervasive
Nagano takes a lilting
approach to the Minuet which is playful and joyous. Again the
contrast between the soft start and loud second phrase is clear
and you notice how comfortably and apparently naturally in the
second part of the second section the cellos, basses and bassoons
constantly echo the first violins, flute and oboes. The Trio
(tr. 4 24:59) begins as no more than a nudge from the flute,
bassoons and horn followed by a pleasant chuckle from oboe and
first violins. But its second section (25:17) brings a loud
assertion from first violins and woodwind, worthy of note because
it’s a sterner version of what’s to be the mellow opening 4-note
motif in the finale. But consistently as before with Nagano,
direct but not over heated. And it’s beguilingly smoothed out
by the first violins alone even by the end of this section.
The finale is superb,
partly because suddenly Nagano calls for more intensity. The
opening delivery of the motif by the first violins is particularly
silky in its softness, the tutti response bouncing in
celebration. On the one hand in this performance you can observe
a fundamentally light, smiling and skipping quality, on the
other a sense of fun even over and above the technical brilliance.
Yet what a generation of energy Nagano finds already in that
first tutti. Even the quieter second theme (tr. 5 28:18)
fairly bubbles along. The development (31:48) contrasts mystery
and fire. After an initial smoothness the recapitulation (32:49)
takes on a new vigour, underscored by the scything figurations
in the violas, cellos and basses. The coda (37:45) is another
soft, silky beginning before the stentorian call of horns and
bassoons ushers in the simultaneous combination of the five
themes of the movement, pitched by Nagano with both clarity
I compared the 1973
performance on DVD by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
(Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4131). Here are the actual music
Unlike Nagano Böhm
doesn’t include repeats other than in the Minuet and Trio, so
the bracketed timings above show the exact equivalent had they
been made. The first movement timing is then almost identical
yet still Nagano seems to find more room to breathe in the quieter
passages which are a stronger contrast simply because his more
modern recording has more weight and density. For Böhm the contrast
is one of power and melodious suaveness and he instils a formidable
momentum. His development is brisk, his false recapitulation
cool and the real one disciplined. Nagano conveys more of a
sense of purpose about the music and wish to communicate. His
false recapitulation is a relaxation, one of the byways he enjoys
and the true one a welcome arrival.
Though again only
marginally slower in the slow movement, Nagano is dreamier,
more spacious and contemplative. Böhm’s loud chords are firmer
than Nagano’s, his opening more emotive, the first theme more
like a lament, the second more dramatic and disturbed, the third
more relaxed, the development sadder: in sum, more romantic.
Nagano’s orchestra doesn’t have quite the same cantabile
but is attractively thematically and structurally explicit,
so the tensions of the second theme are more objectively surveyed
and seen as a passing phase. The development is similarly clear
sighted, as it has already been demonstrated there’s light at
the end of the tunnel.
Böhm’s Minuet and
Trio are rather slower than Nagano’s with the emphasis on the
melody proposed and then resilience of response. Nagano’s approach,
which is lighter in articulation and dynamic contrast, has more
propulsion and is more dance like. Böhm’s Trio begins rather
nonchalantly with a boldly contrasted second section. Nagano
is both jollier and less stark.
Böhm’s finale is
notable for its sheer momentum and tensile strength. The development
is especially animated, the recapitulation fiery and coda spirited.
Nagano shows more dynamic contrast, weight and density. The
emphasis is on rhythmic and contrapuntal clarity, you feel more
how the music fits together. There’s often a lighter, more florid
touch, greater variety of approach if less dramatic concentration.
Nagano’s DVD has
a documentary as a bonus. This is based around the concert performance,
much of which you therefore re-experience in the light of Nagano’s
comments, a few contributions from the players and three brief,
fairly tangential historical scenes featuring Mozart as a cartoon
character with an American accent. These latter may appeal to
those keen on animation. However, the players’ perspectives
are a valuable novelty. The flautist demonstrates for us the
singing quality of her role. A second violinist shows how tricky
it is to play the quiet accompaniment opening the finale “across
the strings, the bow has to be handled extremely carefully”.
A cellist gives us “the bell chime” style of playing and shows
how this sonorous delivery is mixed with a more continuous vibrato
Nagano also offers
plenty of insight in an unpretentious manner. For instance,
at the two chords opening the Trio “time stops and it’s an extraordinary
moment because these two chords stay in the room, there’s a
resonance.” He reflects on Mozart’s genius in synthesising disparate
themes and aspects so they seem a natural and organic progression.
Nagano’s success in performance is evidenced by a cellist later
saying the work is structurally complex but doesn’t sound academic.
Nagano’s quest is “looking for a certain transparency and at
the same time a very living character to illuminate with flexibility
all the different aspects represented within this symphony”,
to which end he experimented and then decided to “stay with
a minimum number of players but increase the way, the character
and the vitality in which they played”. This links with part
of a rehearsal sequence shown later where he asks the first
bassoon in her arabesques in the slow movement to play more
espressivo without being louder. In the rehearsal he
also points out where he wants a little more space and where
not. What in performance seems effectively spontaneous is hereby
shown to be the result of careful preparation, “dreaming, thinking
of performing this symphony as a culmination point of seven
years working together.” Now there’s a pedigree!
The outcome is a
compelling vivacity without compromising classical line and
purity. Here is cleanly and clearly co-ordinated playing which
combines vertical transparency with horizontal cogency and you
can’t ask for more than that.