Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Symphony No. 39 in E flat, K543 [30:53]
Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K551 Jupiter [35:56]
The English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 9 February 2006, Cadogan Hall, London

I remember reading about this concert in the press at the time that it was given. In what was then a ground-breaking venture, a CD of these two symphonies was produced pretty much on the spot and was made available to the audience at the end of the evening. What I hadn’t realised, until reading the entertaining booklet note by producer Isabella de Sabata, was that the two symphonies constituted part one of the concert and the disc production, which was not without incident, went on behind the scenes while the audience enjoyed a second half performance of Mozart’s C minor Mass. Since then a few other organisations have followed this path – I attended a concert at Birmingham about eighteen months ago and came away with a live recording of the Berlioz Grand Messe des Morts, no less (review). But, it seems, The English Baroque Soloists got there first, and good for them! Now the recording has been made available to collectors generally.

Miss de Sabata tells us that in preparing the recording for general release “a few adjustments [have been made] and a couple of very disturbing coughs removed.” Whatever editing has gone on seems to have been very discreet and I was left with the feeling that I’d listened to two genuinely ‘live’ readings in good sound and with very little evidence of audience noise.

The performances themselves are spirited and refined and I enjoyed them very much. There may have been a few slight instances of imprecision in the playing that would have been ironed out under studio conditions but I can’t say I heard any glaring inaccuracies and certainly nothing that impeded my enjoyment of the music-making.

Symphony 39 is one of my favourite Mozart pieces. Here, after a patrician introduction, the first movement allegro is lithe and purposeful. Gardiner shapes II delicately and his players shade the music with matching delicacy; a graceful performance ensues. The minuet has sturdy eloquence and I particularly enjoyed the trio where the clarinets make a pleasing contribution – not least the decoration that Guy Cowley imparts to the melody on its last appearance. The crisp finale is full of zest and brio. The playing of the EBS is distinguished by clean articulation – a virtue throughout this disc – and I relished the very natural energy that the musicians bring to the music.

The Jupiter is equally successful. I can imagine that some listeners might feel that the pace adopted in II is somewhat fleet. I can only say that I welcomed the forward momentum that Gardiner brings to the proceedings and though his tempo is flowing I found no lack of sympathy in the phrasing. The minor key episodes have a nice degree of piquancy. The minuet, which has a completely different character to that of Number 39, is on the swift side but it’s not over-hasty. The performance is capped off with a vibrant, ebullient reading of Mozart’s virtuoso finale. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else on the disc, the listener can really appreciate the clarity with which the performers deliver Mozart’s music.

Any small slips in the playing are a small price to pay beside the vitality of these two Mozart performances. As ever, SDG’s presentation standards are high: the notes by Duncan Druce are succinct and expertly written. I’m delighted that these fine performances have now been made available to the general public.

John Quinn

Fine, vital live performances of two of Mozart’s greatest symphonies.