BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No.32 in G, K318 (1779) [8:56]
Symphony No.35 in D, K385 ‘Haffner’ (1782) [22:49]
Symphony No.36 in C, K425 ‘Linz’ (1783) [37:06]
Symphony No.39 in E-flat, K543 (1788) [28:06]
Symphony No.41 in C, K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788) [34:01]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. Glasgow City Hall, June 1987 (CD1); Govan Town Hall, Glasgow, UK, June 1990 (CD2) DDD.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0963702 [68:58 + 62:07]
These performances have been round the block several times, separately and together, but they are none the worse for that, especially now that the 2-CD set is offered at a very attractive super-budget price, typically around £8 in the UK. Don’t even dream of downloading: it will probably cost you more - I’ve even seen it on offer in mp3 for £15.99! It’s one of the vagaries of the recording industry that their previous incarnation was also on one of Virgin’s very inexpensive twofers. The new reissue is most likely to appeal to Mozart novices, but seasoned collectors with some or all of these works already in their collections could benefit from adding this inexpensive set.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra doesn’t play on period instruments, nor had I thought of Jukka-Pekka Saraste as a Mozartian par excellence, but there’s a great deal more to authenticity than that. What emerges from the partnership is a combination of period-informed practice that never becomes fanatic: just the kind of compromise, in fact, that one associates in this repertoire with the late and much-missed Charles Mackerras.
There is, indeed, a great deal in common between these performances and the more recent recordings which Mackerras set down for Linn, also with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Nos. 38-41 are on Linn CKD308 - Recording of the Month: see review - and Nos. 29, 31, 32, 35 and 36 on Linn CKD350 - see review. I liked these recordings very much when I reviewed them in the February 2009 and April 2010 Download Roundups respectively: the second featured as Recording of the Month. Alas, the third recording that I had hoped for was not to be, but Mackerras’s earlier versions of the complete Mozart symphonies on Telarc, available separately, fill the gap. Mackerras is a little faster in general, but there’s absolutely no lack of liveliness and energy from Saraste.
Both Saraste and Mackerras have, for instance, the sense of style that Bruno Walter captured in his late-1950s, early-1960s CBS recordings of the last six symphonies - formerly available on three LPs and more recently on a 2-CD set which Sony really ought to reissue. (M2YK45676 -snap it up if you see a decent second-hand copy)*. What Saraste and Mackerras also offer is a greater sense of lightness, though I don’t wish to imply that Walter sounds heavy or slow.
In the first movements Walter often omits repeats, making comparisons difficult, but the Menuetto of his No.35 is only three seconds slower than Saraste’s and the finale exactly the same length (4:04). Only in No.41 did I think that Walter’s omission of repeats made the work sound a little less Jupiter-like than it ought. Language is insufficient to convey the enjoyment that I still derive from Walter, from whom I got to know the Haffner and Jupiter, and the subtlety of the difference between him and the two later interpreters. To say that I enjoy all three is not intended as a cop-out. It’s not just nostalgia and the fact that I owned the LPs that takes me back to Walter.
The slow opening of Saraste’s No.39 is as weighty as anything that I’ve heard, including Walter and Mackerras, so he and the SCO can certainly do ‘big’ Mozart when it’s appropriate. He observes more repeats than Walter in this movement, as in the Jupiter, thereby preventing the emphasis from shifting to the andante con moto second movement: Walter makes the two movements almost exactly equal in length. Saraste and Mackerras also pay more attention than Walter to the con moto part of the tempo indication: the CBS notes give the tempo as merely andante, so perhaps Walter was working from a different edition. Saraste and Mackerras clock in at slightly over eight minutes for this movement, Walter at 9:11, yet all three tempi sound perfectly right in context.
More to the point, Saraste and the SCO, in common with the other two, really sound as if they love the music. Though he adopts a fast speed for the finale of No.39, it never sounds dutiful or perfunctory and the observation of repeats gives the movement its due weight - more than a minute longer than Walter (5:28 against 4:05). Mackerras gives the movement even greater weight at 7:49, which might look like too much of a good thing were it not for the lightness and grace which he imparts.
Though Saraste gives power to the first movement of the Jupiter by observing more repeats than Walter, his skipping tempo never allows it to sound pompous. For all that I grumble (below) about the paucity of notes with the Virgin reissue, their description of the ‘ineffable grandeur and forward momentum’ of this symphony is spot on - and it perfectly describes Saraste’s recording of the work. All three conductors observe both parts of the andante cantabile direction for the second movement: here, if anything, Walter gives a slight degree more cantabile lift to the music than Saraste or Mackerras: is the latter just slightly too weighty at a minute longer than Walter or Saraste? Perhaps, but the way that he caresses the music more than atones.
The presence of Mike Hatch (CD1) and Mike Clements (CD2) as balance engineers effectively guarantees sound quality that can still hold its own against more recent releases. Linn’s Mackerras recordings are available in SACD format, or as better-than-CD 24-bit downloads, thereby increasing their appeal to hi-fi enthusiasts. I was very happy with the 16-bit CD-quality (WMA) downloads when I reviewed them. Both Linn sets are offered at less than full price, effectively 2-for-1.
The notes are skimpy, as usual with these Virgin super-budget twofers. If Naxos and Hyperion, especially the latter, can offer booklets with detailed and informative notes in this price-range, why can Virgin not do the same? I’ve said that these recordings are likely to appeal mostly to beginners - and they are the very people who need the notes. Even the HMV Concert Classics recording with André Vandernoot - then one of the least expensive labels - from which I got to know No.39 had a useful sleeve-note. Later, the even cheaper Saga and Fontana LPs (10/- [50p] and 12/6 [63p] respectively) managed to include quite detailed sleeve-notes. We reviewers tend to whack on about this, but newcomers to classical music do need some help.
I would still name the two Mackerras sets in one form or another as my first choice and I certainly hope that the Walter stereo recording will be reissued at a budget price, but there’s very little to choose overall and the Saraste reissue is too tempting a bargain to resist.
* Arkiv have a 3-CD set with the stereo versions of Nos.35 and 38-41 but with the earlier mono No.36 and rehearsals (46511).
Too tempting a bargain to resist.