Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the last three Mozart symphonies at age 83; Charles Mackerras did them (on Linn Records) at age 81, and Frans Brüggen (on Glossa) at 75. It’s fascinating that such distinguished, erudite, pioneering conductors should turn to the final Mozart symphonies at that age. It was to be among Mackerras’ and Brüggen’s last achievements, though we can hope for more from Harnoncourt. Fascinating, especially, that these conductors see so much wisdom and value in the music at the ages they reached, given that the composer was just 32 when he wrote them. Makes me appreciate Mozart’s genius all the more.
On the other hand, this release augments my mixed feelings about Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He seems to be getting stranger with age. Start with the title concept: Harnoncourt is growing increasingly convinced that these three symphonies, composed over summer 1788, are in fact not a trilogy but “a single vast work,” meant to be played all at once. This “Instrumental Oratorium did not exist as a form. That was his idea.” I’m quoting all Harnoncourt’s words. “An important argument in favour of the work’s unity is the sophistication with which Mozart treats the same three themes and motifs in all three symphonies.” Sadly, Harnoncourt does not say what these three themes are, or when we can hear them. He also provides no evidence that Mozart intended for the “Instrumental Oratorium” to be a single twelve-movement work, except the fact that Mozart conducted a choral oratorio by C.P.E. Bach shortly before he started writing. Another fact, which may or may not be meant as evidence, is the assertion that neither 39 nor 40 have “a proper finale”.
The one-work idea is an “insight” (again Harnoncourt’s word) which “listeners may accept…or they remain dubious”. Another insight of which I remain dubious is Harnoncourt’s utterly unexplained assertion that Mozart was a “blackmailer” shaking down noblemen for “hush money”. What?
Harnoncourt also has lots of novel ideas about how the music should go, audible in these performances. The best comparison is to René Jacobs, who also recently recorded wild, blazing-fast, exaggerated, operatic readings of these symphonies. Some of Harnoncourt’s ideas work. There is no pause between Symphonies 39 and 40, and the result is even more effective than he promises. They really do seem to flow together seamlessly.
Other ideas are stranger. The “adagio” introduction to No. 39 is faster than the “allegro” which follows. The development in No. 40’s finale starts with a series of pauses, long and longer, meant to frighten the listener with how dissonant the notes are. We are made uneasy, sure, but I bet even “Yankee Doodle” would sound bizarre if you put second-long pauses between each note. In 39, the rambunctious minuet is the fastest movements around, hogging the spotlight and making the finale seem more pedestrian. We know Harnoncourt does not think the finale “proper”.
Then there are the slow movements to 40 and 41. I was raised on period-instrument performances that kept all the repeats intact: John Eliot Gardiner’s with the English Baroque. I am not, therefore, annoyed that Harnoncourt observes every repeat, pushing these andantes to great lengths. What annoys me is the utter lack of expression, in part because of undue speed. Harnoncourt’s andante in No. 40 is three minutes faster than Jacobs’, two faster than Gardiner’s, and ninety seconds ahead of Mackerras.
Overall, you should expect sudden dynamic and tempo changes, including some tempo changes which seem planned to divide movements into unlikely subsections. Harnoncourt is quite the provocateur here, start to finish. His Concentus Musicus Wien is a longstanding, well-known period instrument ensemble, but if we’re being honest, it rather resembles the anti-period-performance critics’ caricatures of the movement. You can hear a better-balanced, more-rounded sound from the Freiburg Baroque, and very fine woodwind soloists in Brüggen’s Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. Maybe we should be blaming the engineers for Harnoncourt’s piercing trumpets, backseat winds and slightly blurry violins. Double basses, however, are a welcome and loud presence throughout.
My final recommendation is Brüggen if you like a statelier, more old-fashioned interpretation — or want to hear a dazzling Fortieth. Harnoncourt is there if you want eccentric new twists and flashy speed and Jacobs if you are intrigued by Harnoncourt’s approach but desire better execution. Gardiner or Mackerras in Scotland are the ideal compromises.
Masterwork Index: Symphony 39
~~ Symphony 40
~~ Symphony 41