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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No 38 in D major, K 504 ‘Prague’ [29:05]
Symphony No 39 in E-flat major, K 543 [33:13]
Symphony No 40 in G minor, K 550 (first version) [28:25]
Symphony No 41 in C major, K551 ‘Jupiter’ [35:25]
Staatskapelle Dresden / Herbert Blomstedt
rec. August 1981 (Nos. 40-41), September 1982 (Nos. 38-39), Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany
MDG/DENON 650 2222-2 [62:23 + 63:44]

These recordings were made during the period (1975-1985) when Herbert Blomstedt served as chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden. The performances were originally issued by the Japanese Denon label and they reappear now thanks to a new partnership between Denon and MDG. (In passing, I see that Blomstedt’s splendid Dresden recordings of Bruckner’s Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, widely praised by some of my colleagues in previous incarnations, have also reappeared as a two-disc set (MDG 650 2150-2) as part of this new arrangement.)

I don’t know the precise forces which Blomstedt used for these performances; possibly less than a full-sized string section, but certainly not a chamber orchestra. In all cases the string sound has a most pleasing sheen yet it never sounds overweight. There’s consistently good cut-through for the woodwind sound and the whole band is expertly balanced. Whether I listened through speakers or headphones I found that the orchestral detail registered in an excellent fashion. These recordings wear their four decades very well. The acoustic of the Lukaskirche is resonant, but not excessively so.

If you insist on HIP performances of Mozart then these performances may not be for you but to pass them by would be a serious error because they are of high quality. I am definitely partial to HIP versions. I also like very much hearing Mozart played by chamber forces, such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (review) but I also like to hear Mozart’s music played by a modern symphony orchestra. I had wondered about doing a comparative review between the Mackerras set of these four symphonies, which I esteem highly, and the Blomstedt versions. In the end, I just settled back and enjoyed Blomstedt’s performances on their own considerable merits.

The ‘Prague’ benefits from a good, spacious treatment of the Adagio introduction; spacious it may be, but there’s still a welcome sense of purpose. The main Allegro is dynamic, the articulation crisp. The exposition repeat is taken, as is the case in all four symphonies. In the Andante, Blomstedt and his highly accomplished players make the phrases sing in a refined, polished performance. The Presto finale is full of festive energy. This most enjoyable performance gets the set off to an auspicious start.

In No 39 Blomstedt conveys a suitable degree of grandeur in the Adagio introduction. He doesn’t take the ensuing Allegro too fast; the music is allowed to breathe very naturally That said, at the first tutti it’s clear that there is no want of energy in the music-making. There follows a graceful account of the Andante. For me, the Menuetto is ideally paced, though some listeners might find the pace a touch on the stately side. I relished the mellifluous woodwind contributions in the Trio. I find the Allegro finale is similarly well paced. Blomstedt doesn’t rush the music off its feet – how wise he is – but the music is invested with plenty of life.

In his last two symphonies Mozart dispensed with slow introductions; in each case he plunges us straight into the main body of the first movement. In the G minor symphony Blomstedt opts to use Mozart’s original scoring, so there are no clarinets. The first movement is marked Molto allegro but many conductors over the years have taken the ‘molto’ element of that instruction with a pinch of salt: Blomstedt is among their number. He selects a judicious speed which allows the music sufficient space, but at the same time he doesn’t sacrifice momentum. Some may well feel that the music should go just a fraction quicker but I responded very favourably to Blomstedt’s humane, civilised view of the movement. Furthermore, his relaxed core speed doesn’t preclude an injection of intensity in the more forceful episodes during the development section. The Andante second movement is relaxed and expertly judged. The Menuetto is delivered in quite a sturdy fashion; I like that, as I do the elegance of the Trio. I’ve heard swifter renditions of the Allegro assai finale but I think Blomstedt is convincing. He leads a spirited performance without ever rushing the music off its feet. He achieves great clarity, aided and abetted by the crisp articulation from all sections of the orchestra. I liked this account of K 550 very much.

The first movement of the ‘Jupiter’ is sprightly and joyful. The orchestra is immaculately balanced and there’s a sense of happiness to the performance. In the development Blomstedt and the Dresdeners do full justice to Mozart’s wit and invention. Arguably, Blomstedt’s pace for the second movement is on the slow side given that the marking is Andante cantabile. On another day I might wish to hear more fluidity in the music but Blomstedt is convincing, I think. And no one could complain of being short-changed in terms of the ‘cantabile’ element; the Staatskapelle Dresden play with great sensitivity. This is a classy performance. The Menuetto is full of courtly elegance and then we come to that miracle of counterpoint that is the finale. Blomstedt’s performance benefits from great but very natural clarity; Mozart took the trouble to write all these different musical lines and Blomstedt makes sure that each one gets its due. This is a marvellous performance, full of energy and joie de vivre.

This set contains four splendid performances. I suppose one might label them ‘old school’ – though not in a pejorative way – but certainly not ‘old-fashioned’. These are cultivated, stylish readings, distinguished by taste and intelligence. Furthermore, each symphony benefits from superb playing by the Staatskapelle Dresden. As I said earlier, the recorded sound wears its years lightly.

It’s worth noting that there is a CD, which I’ve not heard, containing more recent performances of the last two symphonies played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Blomstedt (review). However, MDG offer two extra symphonies.

These Dresden performances should give a lot of pleasure; their restoration to the catalogue is extremely welcome.

John Quinn

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