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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K551,  Jupiter (1788) [40:48]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Berlin, DDD. Writers: Reiner Schild and Rolf Rische Video Directors: Oliver Becker (documentary), Ellen Fellmann (concert) Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1. Picture format: NTSC 16:9. Disc format: DVD 9. Region code: 0 (all regions). Subtitles: French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 427  [92:50]

 


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 lack bite.

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 resilience.

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 and exultation.

I compared the 1973 performance on DVD by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4131). Here are the actual music comparative timings:

Timings    I  II    III IV      Total
Nagano 11:08  10:42  4:07  11:30 37:27
Böhm 7:59 (11:03)  7:21
(10:31)
 5:19  6:09      (11:16) 25:48  (38:09)

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 manner.

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.

Michael Greenhalgh

 

 


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