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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K543 (1788) [31:24]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 (1788) [22:21]
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K551, Jupiter (1788) [38:11]
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century/Frans Brüggen
rec. live, Rotterdam (de Doelen), 4 March 2010
GLOSSA GCD 921119 [53:51 + 38:11]

Purists will love this. One concert, one take, get it right first time.

Brüggen gets a bright, majestic sound from the woodwind and brass, nicely contrasted with silky violins’ descents in the introduction to the first movement of Symphony 39. In this introduction he achieves a sense of expectation, poise and tension, though the emphatic two-demisemiquavers + crotchet punctuation in the timpani just before the lead-in to the Allegro is a bit stiff. The first theme (CD1 tr. 1, 2:29) is relaxed, the following tutti rather formal. The second theme (4:16) is also relaxed before Brüggen effects a more triumphant and pressing exposition close. He brings a fair swing to the development (7:28) too. This is very much a classical account with clean, clear, expressive contrasts in an acoustic which somewhat favours the wind, but not generally overmuch.

I compared the 2001 recording by Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel (Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT 030501.2). This takes 9:36 for this movement against Brüggen’s 11:13. Immerseel’s introduction has a more purposive thrust and readily discernible shape, if less drama, than Brüggen’s. His first theme is more sunny and nonchalant, his tuttis more jubilant with magnificent bounce and momentum. His second theme is delicately instilled before sterling affirmation to end the exposition. His development, however, seems a touch perfunctory in comparison with Brüggen’s. Immerseel’s closer miked recording has more immediacy.

Brüggen’s slow movement (tr. 2) is stylish. Smoothly and warmly phrased, it’s like a display of neat pirouetting. There are countless little variations of melody and instrumentation clarified and enjoyed, like the quiet insistence of the violas’ heartbeat in the second strain from 0:44, a sudden clouded phase (1:20) soon dispelled (1:29). The marking is Andante con moto and, at 6:45 against Brüggen’s 8:24, Immerseel has more of the latter. This makes the movement merrier but less substantial. The details seem fussy rather than, with Brüggen, adding subtle touches to the whole.

Brüggen’s Minuet goes with a real swing and percussive heft yet still maintains regality and elegance. His Trio bubbles along contentedly with the first strain repeat quieter, the second strain quiet before a louder repeat, judicious embellishment in the repeats by the clarinet and the pause at the end made a feature, as if the Trio is suddenly cut adrift. Immerseel takes 3:23 for the movement against Brüggen’s 3:42. Jollity abounds but you appreciate the Minuet more as an exercise in athleticism than elegance, though the dynamic contrasts are good. Immerseel’s clarinet isn’t quite as poised as Brüggen’s and he doesn’t make a feature of the pause ending the Trio.

The finale is attractively bubbling with light, shimmering violins and buoyant tutti with flute especially so, preparing us for the second theme (tr. 4, 0:36). This begins as a comically tripping variation of the first, in which the flute assists, before transforming into airy musing from the first violins. The effervescence becomes more animated from the development (3:07). Immerseel’s violins glint but are not as feathery as Brüggen’s. His tutti are more festively boisterous and his development purposeful but, unlike Brüggen, he does not repeat the second half of the movement.

Brüggen conveys the Molto Allegro of the first movement of Symphony 40 exactly right. It's not a matter of pace so much as urgency and seamlessness of incident presented as an ineluctable sweep. So, in turn in the exposition, come the keening flute cries in the first tutti, the manically consolatory quality of the second part of the opening theme (0:27), the calmer yet also careworn, even weary, nature of the second theme (0:44) and the soulful sighs in the codetta (1:14). The development (3:21) sees a vigorous counter-theme alongside the first theme while the quiet recapitulation emphasizes that the first theme is one of eternal disquiet. Although Immerseel adopts virtually the same tempo, his account has less tension than Brüggen’s because his articulation is less insistent. His opening is sinisterly shadowy, his second theme at first inconsequential before later bursting into passion, his codetta less expressive. His development is firm but what impresses is structural more than emotive clarity. His horns’ contributions are notably prominent.

Brüggen’s Andante second movement, and therefore not particularly slow, is warm and flowing. His counter-theme (tr. 2, 0:28) to the opening is sweetly refined, the later demisemiquaver figurations lightly petite but not flippant. Thus the whole becomes an idyllic interlude, the second theme (2:00) sweetly distilled, the exposition’s closing tutti understated. The development (2:54) is darker, the demisemiquaver figurations becoming more grim when exchanged between strings and wind. This mood soon subsides with the recapitulation. Only marginally slower, Immerseel is more dreamy, his counter-theme more mystical, his demisemiquaver figurations more exquisite. His second theme is equally refined with exposition’s closing tutti tending towards sobriety yet still fairly warm. His firmer development makes its exchange of demisemiquaver figurations a touch stiffer. Brüggen omits both the exposition and second half repeats; Immerseel gives us the first of these.

Brüggen’s Minuet is disciplined and purposeful. The fine balance he achieves with woodwind clarity gives a chattering intensity to the syncopations. His Trio, a mite slower, returns us to the idyllic mood of the second movement, made airier by the wind contributions, especially Mozart’s spotlighting of the horns in the latter part of the second strain. Only a touch faster, 3:23 against Brüggen’s 3:48, Immerseel’s commendable clarity makes the Minuet speak as just an efficient exercise in counterpoint. The faster Trio works OK because its sparer texture keeps it airy.

Brüggen’s finale is firm and disciplined, the first violins' soft first phrase immediately answered by a loud tutti. The second theme (tr. 8, 1:03) is calm on sinuous first violins, then clarinet. The codetta (1:32) is mettlesome, more animated, before the gruff development opening (1:53) and stern fugato (2:14). All is tempered with classical restraint and for me it could be a touch more fiery. The recapitulation of the second theme in the minor is wan and the coda (4:16) offers an emphatically tragic close, albeit in light articulation. Immerseel's articulation and dynamic contrast have less character than those of Brüggen, so his emphasis is on the hurtling quality which does give the strings' running quavers more fire. Immerseel brings more of a contrasted grace to the second theme, a look back to happier times, which gives it an amorphous, displaced quality when it returns in the recapitulation in the minor. As in the second movement Immerseel repeats only the exposition while Brüggen offers no repeats. You may feel a bit short-changed.

Brüggen’s Symphony 41 begins with punch in the tuttis and suaveness to the strings’ response. The second theme (CD2 tr. 1, 1:30) has disarmingly pleading first violins, immediately sympathetically acknowledged by the lower strings. The third theme (2:42) is all light tripping. The development (6:28) is firm yet cheerful with flute and oboe contributions prominent. There’s a sly smoothness to the fake recapitulation (7:31), a neat contrast which paves the way for others, the enhanced verve to the second part of the development and majesty to the genuine reprise. Immerseel's emphasis is more on pace, taking 10:34 against Brüggen's 11:42. This makes the tuttis more brusque, the strings' contrasts less graceful, though Immerseel's second theme is petite and refined and his third theme also has an attractive exiguous nature. Greater pace also makes the development cheerier yet Immerseel's fake recapitulation is pleasingly relaxed before the second part of the development sweeps forward.

Brüggen’s second movement begins in lovely dreamy mode, the strings being muted. The arresting loud chord at the end of the first phrase is for me too emphatic. The effect is neater when repeated by just the lower strings (tr. 2, 0:44). Similarly, when the strings cut across the second theme (1:08) introduced by oboes and bassoons the sforzando is a little overcooked, though the acoustic might be a factor. It should be disquieting and with the third theme (1:48) Brüggen provides a warmer, consoling response, giving way to delicious musing by the first violins echoed by the flutes. Brüggen’s fairly expansive tempo allows the music to breathe and reflect. The development (6:11) is troubled and insistent but calmed by the conjuring trick of chains of arabesques in the woodwind and soothed by the return to the opening. The strings ruminate in running demisemiquavers and the reappearance of the third theme in the violins is exquisitely delicate. Immerseel adopts a more orthodox Andante, timing at 8:27 against Brüggen’s 10:27. This rather weakens the cantabile which is also Mozart’s marking. The arresting loud chord is too brusque. Two period instrument performances which do for me get it right are Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre) and Minkowski (Archiv). With Immerseel the violins’ early demisemiquavers are insufficiently restful, his second theme sforzando even more insistent than Brüggen’s. Much the same applies to the drama of his development which, however, lacks the inner tension imparted by Brüggen. He achieves more of a gossamer quality for the demisemiquaver strings and a sweet, shadowy reappearance of the third theme.

In the Minuet Brüggen makes an ideal contrast between stylish first violins’ proposition and boisterous tutti response, between indolently falling lines and spruce rising ones. The same contrast is then made clear in the Trio’s first strain with a yawning opening descent, then chattering woodwind descents, but whose second strain is all rising tutti thrust. Brüggen adds a closing nod to the genteel aspects by softening the final three notes of the Minuet repeat. Immerseel’s Minuet and Trio is more homely, less sophisticated and substantial, but clearly contrasted and sunny and merry. He gives you less to admire but perhaps more to enjoy.

Brüggen begins the finale with introspectively musing strings soon brought fully down to earth by a hearty tutti. Both elements are presented with supreme confidence, rhythmic incisiveness and stunning pace. The ‘second’ theme (conventionally) (tr. 4, 1:05) has a momentarily more relaxed start before blossoming into a florid display from the violins. The more forceful nature of the woodwind is a feature of the development (4:35) just as the variation and expansion of the themes enriches the recapitulation. The coda (10:33), in which the movement’s five motifs are displayed together, has a beginning in the strings with a sense of the mystical before a headily joyous splendour of affirmation in which the wind, brass and timpani all make their presence felt. Amazingly Immerseel takes the movement at 11:20 compared with Brüggen‘s 11:39 to give a breathtaking display. The advantage is greater structural clarity; the disadvantage more emphasis on virtuosity than Brüggen’s on celebration. There’s less heft in the tuttis and interiority in the softer passages than Brüggen reveals.

To sum up, Brüggen brings deeply thought through and satisfying readings with a wealth of contrast, spontaneity and capacity to surprise. Much of this is the advantage of one live recording. The disadvantage is that you are placed a few rows back from the action, the flute in upper register can be very piercing, the bassoon sometimes very soft indeed. These are, however, only minor flaws.
Michael Greenhalgh

Masterwork Index: Symphony 39 ~~ Symphony 40 ~~ Symphony 41