Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K453 (1788) [31:03]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 (1788) [35:05]
Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado
rec. live, Auditorium Teatro Manzoni, Bologna, June /2008, June 2009. DDD
ARCHIV PRODUKTION 477 9792 [66:11]
The introduction to Symphony 39 from Claudio Abbado has grandeur, smoothness and works up to an appreciable tension. The opening theme of the first movement itself slips in with graceful suaveness but the tutti which follows adds edge and majesty to the introduction’s grandeur. Orchestra Mozart’s strings can be as delicate or as rugged as you wish and often in quick succession. Abbado has mastered the trick of getting a lightness and transparency of texture whenever he wants and also a sunny bite to the brass when required. As throughout this CD Abbado keenly exploits Mozart’s contrasts of nuance, dynamic, clarity and variety of rhythm and texture.
Abbado conducts this modern orchestra in a historically informed manner. As a result he achieves a seductive hybrid sound interesting to compare with period instrument performance. I listened to the recording made in 1990 by the London Classical Players/Roger Norrington (Virgin Veritas 5620102). Norrington’s introduction is more provocative with combative timpani and brass more markedly contrasted with wispy strings, but the latter’s ethereal quality itself is unable to create much tension as the climax builds. In the first movement this pattern of demure strings pitted against strident brass continues, all sentences strongly punctuated but less of the sense of overall paragraphs that you get with Abbado. Norrington is more exciting but Abbado is more temperate and humane.
Abbado’s slow movement (tr. 2) is warm, smooth, polite, cultivated and there seems to be all the time in the world to enjoy it. It’s intently observed, so only one note difference in the phrase from 1:18 and more in the following phrase creates an awareness of hard won ease. Soon you’re taken further out of your comfort zone by the unexpected urgency of the F minor episode which first appears from 2:37. I have never heard the cellos’ rising figure at the close (from 7:52) so beautifully shaped and wistfully articulated. Now Norrington also has a fine blend of lightness and warmth, but the steely quality of the airy period strings means that the central section, though more pungent, is less contrasted in tone than with modern instruments.
Abbado’s Minuet is stylishly varied between the opening rugged tutti, through strict observation of the wind’s chugging crotchets, and the sprightlier elegance of the second phrase largely for strings alone. Clarinet and flute are lyrical in the Trio but the haunting part of its second section is achieved by Abbado’s wistful first violins. Norrington’s faster Allegretto gives you less time to take in the variety of the first violin’s pointing in the first section and their unexpectedly sudden sadness in the Trio.
Abbado’s finale (tr. 4) is from the start all bubbling enjoyment and it’s part of the fun that Mozart fakes a second theme from 0:36 by just giving the flutes and bassoons bits of melody to echo the first violins’ opening theme and then sustain that theme while the first violins sail off into their own musing expatiation. Abbado is tougher for the development’s cloudier harmonies and allows the horns to be more ominous, but you know the movement’s opening bubble isn’t going to burst. Norrington’s finale is on the whole lighter and sunnier, his strings more svelte and his horns tending to jollity.
The opening movement of Symphony 40 (tr. 5) is marked Molto allegro yet in Abbado’s refined approach I don’t feel the Molto element. I appreciate the contours, dynamic contrasts and troubled atmosphere but Abbado seems happiest in the second theme (0:49). The rest is about trying to recapture its nonchalant smoothness. The development is more downcast and the progression of the melody grows more stinging. The coda is more orderly than emotive: try the first violins’ chromatic descent from 7:27 which has a silky sadness. You might feel that’s sufficiently musically explicit, but ought it to be more despairing? If you think it should you’ll prefer Norrington whose full movement timing at 6:57 against Abbado’s 7:48 provides more urgency, tension and latterly features starker contributions from the horns.
Abbado adopts a good Andante for the slow movement (tr. 6) which lets it be warm yet flow on. This makes for a captivating rise of the first violins’ counter-theme at 0:28 and a luxuriantly ornate parade of demisemiquaver figures thereafter. The second theme (0:53) is serenely distilled. You note the change to a more questioning first violins’ counter-theme at 7:18 in the development but by 8:41 their sighs are in the nature of sunny savouring. At 12:09 against Abbado’s 13:34 Norrington is faster in this movement too but this isn’t advantageous because although he is dreamy, mystical, poetic, even balletic by turns, the movement as a whole has less density.
Abbado takes the Minuet (tr. 7) at a fair swing as appropriate to its Allegretto marking but at the same time has a curiously carefree manner for G minor. The frequent syncopation, especially that between first and second violins from 0:44, is undeniably confrontational yet Abbado also brings to it a purely objective quality. The G major Trio is attractively calm and innocent, enhanced by some gorgeous horns in duet in the second section. Norrington’s Minuet on the other hand, unmistakably grim in manner, allows him to effect a more marked contrast with his fresh and airy Trio.
In the finale (tr. 8) Abbado finds a surprisingly festive quality by relishing the lightness of the opening soft proposition of its first theme rather more than its immediately loud second phrase. The marking here is Allegro assai and the assai element is present with some terrifically trim playing by all the strings. The second theme (1:03) is played as if an idyllic vision and is suitably cowed when it returns in the recapitulation in the minor. The stark sustained cries in the wind begun by the horns at 4:10 have due prominence without disturbing the overall impression of disciplined, controlled energy. Norrington is more fiery but also manages to find more contrast in a sunnier second theme.
Abbado offers a satisfying blend of the sumptuous tone of a modern orchestra with the lightness of articulation and rhythmic clarity of historically informed performance. His accounts have more nuance than Norrington’s but the latter’s are more dramatic in contrast, partly because of the more raw sound of the brass and timpani. Abbado’s urbane, refined approach is more convincing for Symphony 39 than Symphony 40 where at times the minor key presentation seems to me smoothed over.
Abbado’s urbane, refined approach is more convincing for Symphony 39.