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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 39 in E flat, K543 (1788) [31:08]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 (1788) [35:35]
Symphony No. 41 in C, K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788) [39:40]
Ensemble Resonanz/Riccardo Minasi
rec. 2019, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, Germany.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902629.30 [66:43 + 39:40]

There’s a line to be drawn somewhere between Mozart ‘the refined perfectionist’ and Mozart ‘the revolutionary’. We’ve gone through times in which he was held up as an example of Classical perfection or a vehicle for romantic expressiveness, and having moved beyond this into sharp-edged period instrument performance there are justifiable reasons to seek out and enhance the avant-garde in Mozart, and this is what we get from the outset with Ensemble Resonanz and Riccardo Minasi.

Florence Badol-Bertand’s booklet notes remind us that these three symphonies were composed in an intense period in which Mozart found himself grieving for the loss of his baby daughter Theresia, as well as being in financial difficulties amidst the crises in Austria in 1788, with war, famine, epidemics and uprisings making the arts a luxury that was cut back on, forcing Mozart to rely on the support of friends. These symphonies are further seen as “a single, large scale symphony in three episodes”, each with their own unique characteristics but with a dramatic arc that takes us from the slow introduction to Symphony No. 39, via the sorrowing G minor of Symphony No. 30 to the “immense resolution of tensions” in Symphony No. 41. There are reasonable arguments made for this, and it is an idea already posited by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, to whom we will come later. We can doubt that this was anything conscious on Mozart’s part, but it is food for thought.

I’ve enjoyed hearing Ensemble Resonanz playing CPE Bach (review), and this is a flexible band that plays contemporary and 20th century music as well as works from the 18th century. They perform on modern instruments, but carry plenty of convincing period performance ethos that avoids vibrato, uses hard sticks for the timpani, and generally avoids weighty stodge without going for unexpected extremes of tempo. The playing is excellent throughout this set, but you will perhaps need to be ‘in the mood’ to warm to Minasi’s outer movements, which are about as exciting as you can get with these symphonies without losing the plot entirely. As I said at the start, this is Mozart the revolutionary, so you can expect to be shouted at as much as you would expect to be by Beethoven and perhaps even more so, as the dynamic contrasts and punchiness in the opening movements are exploited and pushed to the limits in these performances.

Slow movements are exquisite here, with some breathtaking moments of quiet in the Andante con moto of No. 39, and again with also a delicious little portamento from the strings in the opening bars of the Andante of No. 40. Menasi cheekily plays with tempi from time to time at the ends of phrases, or making little dashes forward in the midst of them, but this is all part of his rhetorical approach to this music and if you can live with the extremes elsewhere then you will accept these gestures as part of the package. The Menuetto of No. 40 has in this way lost much of its dance character, but has gained an expressive weight beyond that which you would normally anticipate. Lightness and wit have been traded in for a reading that could almost introduce the four-note motif that opens Beethoven’s 5th Symphony without it being too much of a surprise.

These recordings are decent enough, but there is a bit of a mid-range thickness to the timpani that makes the Allegro vivace opening of the ‘Jupiter’ a bit boomy. The recording acoustic is spacious, but only just enough to contain performances that seem to want to stretch the walls. I wanted to check my musical orientation by this point, so brought out Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s set of the same three symphonies with Concentus Musicus Wien on Sony Classical (review). Recorded in a large acoustic and at a more distant perspective, Harnoncourt’s personal take on these symphonies is made a little easier to take than Minasi’s, though in terms of love/hate responses to certain aspects of both I would say the honours are about equal. If you want a more no-nonsense approach then Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from the Linn label is a top-quality alternative. Mackerras doesn’t pull his punches but isn’t as over-the-top as Minasi, which means missing out on some of those uniquely special moments in the present recording, but also means not feeling that you’re undergoing some kind of confrontation with these symphonies each time you spin either of these discs.

I’m all for new approaches with core repertoire, and find much to admire in this Harmonia Mundi recording. Responses to such recordings are subjective, and what I’ve found myself having to learn to love you might find right up your street from the outset. There is certainly much to learn here. We’re shown how Mozart’s impact on later composers might be closer that we’d previously imagined; just how very operatic these symphonies can be, and are also given keen pointers towards the extremes of expression he was investing in these works – no stones are left unturned in these interpretations. Even after numerous re-visits to this set over a period of many days I still come away feeling more browbeaten than stimulated and inspired, a feeling emphasised by the bruising final Molto allegro of No. 41. This might be a side-effect of a detailed recording balance that allows the brass and timpani to be perhaps a little more up-front than is altogether healthy. Even with those exquisite moments of counterpoint played to perfection I come away with my brain tenderised by too many hammer-blows rather than my horizons expanded and my soul energised.

Dominy Clements

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