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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Last Six Symphonies
Symphony No 36 in C, K425 ‘Linz’ (1783) [27:05]
Symphony No 39 in E flat, K543 (1788) [26:41]
Symphony No 38 in D, K504 ‘Prague’ (1786) [24:10]
Symphony No 40 in G minor, K550 (1788) [25:33]
Symphony No 41 in C, K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788) [30:18]
Symphony No 35 in D, K385 ‘Haffner’ (1782) [19:14]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 1959-63. ADD/stereo
Reviewed as streamed in 24/192 sound.
SONY G0100040942846 [153:00]
Also available: Nos. 35 and 39 MK42026, a Presto special CDR.

Having failed to deliver my promised review of the Sony Bruno Walter – The Complete Columbia Collection (Sony 19075923242, 77 CDs) in reasonable time, I’m picking out some of the plums from it. The complete set costs around £200, takes up oodles of space, and contains several recordings you probably already own. For starters, I’ve selected these stereo Mozart recordings from Walter’s Indian Summer and his much earlier (mono) recordings of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies.

Those Beethoven recordings, with the New York Philharmonic, are preferable, except as recorded sound, to his later Beethoven with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. He didn’t have the same rapport with this ad hoc recording group as he did with the NYPO, but they did make some fine recordings together, and these Mozart symphonies are among the best.

The complete set contains some earlier Walter Mozart recordings with the NYPO, including Nos 38 and 41 from 1949 (CD6 of the set or G010004058259E, download or stream), but it’s to these later recordings that I’m still attached. Long ago, returning to Oxford in a miserable late January, I splashed out on the CBS release of these recordings of the ‘Haffner’ and ‘Jupiter’ symphonies at full price, an unheard-of extravagance, but the bright cover of a miniature violin on a score, highlighted by a prism, was so appealing. Though a confirmed Beecham fan by then, I plumped for that Walter LP at 36/- (over £60 today) and never regretted it. In fact, I compared the ‘Jupiter’ with a friend’s copy of the Beecham and preferred Walter. Later, I replaced it with the stereo version and, later still, with the 2-CD CBS Maestro reissue of the six late symphonies. That’s still my version of choice; not only do I know where to find the CDs easily, I’ve ripped them for even faster computer listening.

The latest reissue returns to the original LP couplings, whereas the CBS Maestro reissue, with three symphonies per CD, managed to get all six on two well-filled discs. That’s well worth seeking out if you can find a decent second-hand copy, but I could wish that they had retained the LP sleeves – that for Nos 35 and 41 especially. At least the new cover shot is more imaginative than the drab CBS Maestro.

I chose the Linn reissue of Sir Charles Mackerras’ recordings of the late Mozart symphonies and Requiem as one of my Recordings of the Year for 2020, but that in no way negates my strong affection for these Walter recordings; in fact, I couldn’t avoid eulogising them in my review of that set. I remarked that Mackerras makes the ‘Prague’ symphony sound almost the equal of the three masterpieces which followed it; I could say the same of Walter.

Of course, Mackerras, with the benefit of extra knowledge of period practice and the slimmer dimensions of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, sounds very different from Walter, but what unites them is a clear affection for the music. I’d hate to choose between them for my Desert Island.

In a sense comparison is futile, partly because Walter was all over the place when it came to including or omitting repeats. Where comparison is possible, however, I’m surprised how little difference there is in the spirit of the performances. From the opening movement of No 35, allegro con spirito, it’s apparent that a larger orchestra is involved under Walter, and the 1959 recording, though still good for its date, can’t compare with the Linn, but what Mackerras gives us is more like a revised version of Walter’s Mozart – a lither, livelier version, with even better playing than Walter obtained from the Columbia Orchestra, and better recorded. That means that we hear more of the inner detail, but it’s not a radical rethink of the movement.

Walter gives us the andante second movement in 5:17, where Mackerras takes 8:03. The Columbia playing is often surprisingly delicate for such a large orchestra, but figures are deceptive: it’s not that Mackerras dawdles through the movement, though he certainly doesn’t rush it, merely that the Linn recording gives the movement its full weight by observing the repeats. And, while Mackerras is certainly alive to the emotional heart of the music, he does so without the need to pull the tempo around as much as Walter.

If there’s one work in which large-scale Mozart works best, it’s the ‘Jupiter’ symphony. I dislike the term ‘big band’, because that has its own connotations for a style of music that I enjoy. By the time that the ‘Jupiter’ was composed in 1788, Haydn had taken the concept of the symphony to new heights with his six ‘Paris’ symphonies (Nos 82-87) and No 88, but Mozart’s final three would lift the form even further.

The ‘Jupiter’ is amazingly capable of sounding right in a variety of interpretations. I was surprised to discover from the Hyperion ‘Jupiter Project’ how well it sounds in Clementi’s chamber-scale reduction for piano, flute, violin and cello (CDA68234 – review review). At the other end of the scale, Walter provides the grandeur that the title proclaims, to which the chamber reduction can never aspire. Böhm, of similar vintage, is a little lighter on his feet throughout, but that’s less appropriate in this symphony than in earlier Mozart. (4474162, 2 CDs, budget price – see review of Alto reissue of Nos 39-41).

The Berlin Philharmonic also play very well for Böhm, though without the sense of being well-drilled that Karajan would bring to his Mozart recordings with the same orchestra. But Walter and the Columbia Symphony had by this time settled in better together, and they were playing for him almost as well as the NYPO had. The recording is a little brighter than the DG – markedly so if you play one after the other, with Böhm sounding a little dull at first until the ear adjusts. If Walter captures more of the grandeur, Böhm is more lyrical. Either would serve as a fine example of the best of the older style of Mozart playing. (I’m referring to the c.1960 Böhm, not his later Mozart recordings.)

The Mackerras recordings offer a clear modern choice, especially at their new price of around £24, a 5-CD set with the Requiem thrown in. They are also available on CD, whereas the Sony is download only, unless you go for the big box or can find the earlier CBS Maestro CDs. But I can’t find it in my heart to decry Walter’s Mozart; like the DG recordings of the same symphonies from Karl Böhm, there’s a clear place for them alongside later versions. Listen, for example, to the love which Walter bestows on the second movement of the Linz, on the second track into the set, and I defy you not to share his affection for the music. A few tracks later, the opening movement of No 39 dances in a way that very few recordings achieve.

The late-50s, early-60s sound has come up very well indeed in the 24/192 transfer that I listened to. It does seem to add a little extra presence over and above the CD set that I own, but it comes at a price. In reviewing the Beethoven Symphonies Nos 7 and 8, I mentioned that these individual downloads from the Sony set are comparatively expensive, but these Mozart recordings offer better value than most, with the contents of three CDs from the set offered in lossless sound for around £11.50, the same price as the single-CD-equivalents in the series.

By all means you should have more recent, historically informed recordings of these symphonies, such as the Mackerras. There’s also an attractive set of the Brilliant Classics complete Mozart symphonies from Jaap ter Linden – see my Recording of the Month review for a comparison with Walter in the ‘Jupiter’ – but you should also have Walter’s Mozart in your library. Beware: what was a super-budget Brilliant CD set is now an over-expensive download-only proposition from some dealers, though Amazon UK still have the CDs for £35.95 and Qobuz have the download for £16.19. Snap either up while you can at those prices, but do go for the Walter, too, as offering the best of old-style Mozart in very good transfers.

Brian Wilson



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