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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No.38 in D major “Prague” K504 [38:55]
Symphony No.39 in E flat major K588 [32:13]
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Andrew Manze
rec. 13-18 March 2021, Großer Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhaus, Hannover, Germany
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186765 [71:21]

This recording completes the set of the last Mozart symphonies by these forces conducted by Andrew Manze after their superb coupling of Nos. 40 and 41 from 2019 (PTC5186757). I was surprised that that recording didn’t garner more admiring reviews. I hope this new release gets the plaudits its companion didn’t get but certainly deserved.

Manze is one of the most interesting conductors around at the moment. Whether it is his excellent Vaughan Williams symphony series (Onyx) or his positive contributions to the dazzling Martin Helmchen’s recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos (Alpha), whatever Manze is up to is always worth listening to.

To begin with, Manze includes all the possible repeats. Back in the days of Harnoncourt’s pioneering recording of the Prague, this caused quite a stir and second-half repeats are still not as common as I, for one, would like. Including them dramatically alters the balance of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, at the very least making them grander and more spacious. Manze and his top-notch orchestra make them very grand and spacious indeed. Leaving aside old fashions, I have never understood why anyone would want less Mozart.

In other aspects, these performances tread a carefully considered line between conservative and historically informed. As hinted, despite his origins in HiP, Manze is no speed merchant in either symphony. For once, the poor orchestral players are not falling over themselves in the finale of No.39 at Manze’s sensible tempo. Mercifully, he eschews the now ubiquitous explosive timpani. The timpani make a positive contribution but Manze clearly prefers balance to effect, which I think is crucial in Mozart. Period instruments aren’t used but period performance practice is judiciously applied. The consistent impression is of tasteful, thought through decisions made on the basis of the music, not dogma.

My personal preference in both these symphonies has always been Bruno Walter whose luminous stereo recordings made in America seem to get better with age as other performances fall out of fashion (Sony – review). Part of the reason I admire them so much is that Walter refuses to patronise these works. In his hands, each symphony feels momentous and I get the same feeling with Manze. Too many modern performances make these works feel lightweight and small scale (in conception, rather than in size of orchestra). I seem to be in a definite minority on this but I have always found Mackerras’ much praised Scottish Chamber Orchestra rather small-bore (Linn). With Manze, as with Walter, we know we are listening to great masterpieces. There is nothing ponderous or earnest about this. The Prague is as combustible as a great performance of Don Giovanni and No.39 glows with an autumnal light.

When I saw the 12:12 running time of the Prague’s slow movement, I will admit that I did fear longueurs. I had similar initial feelings about the slow movement of No.40 in the earlier recording, but I was totally and happily wrong in both instances. Both movements are revealed as needing the fullest space possible to reveal the grandeur of their design. Despite its great length, to Manze’s great credit he refuses to rush a thing. He embarks on the second-half repeat with the same care and poise as he began the movement. The results speak for themselves.

The finale of the Prague can often seem much ado about nothing when conductors strain for weight to balance out the two huge movements that precede it. Manze trusts Mozart’s sublime sense of proportion and lets the music work its magic. At the risk of sounding overheated, I think this is the best performance of this particular movement I know.

The first thing to be said about this version of No.39 is how magnificently the woodwind acquit themselves. Their blend provides a depth to the orchestral sound that lets the shadows which so often cross this music register fully. The sublime slow movement is exceptional in this regard, helped along by Manze’s not too fast, not too slow tempo. He also keeps the passionate forte passages in proportion to the rest of the music, letting us know that the almost zen-like canonic music that follows it grows out of pain. The effect is one of consolation.

As I mentioned earlier, I appreciated the lack of rush in the finale and the same could be said of the minuet which chugs along with Austrian good humour and a dash of refinement, whilst the trio sounds like everyone has kicked off their shoes and pulled up a chair. It is a reminder that Mozart set out to entertain and keep the attention of easily distracted audiences. No wonder Salomon wanted him, as well as Haydn, for his London concerts.

Pentatone continue their current run of state-of-the-art recordings and, as I have indicated, the NDR Radiophilharmonie play like a dream for Manze. This is wonderful Mozart. Unless you have an absolute need to hear this music played on period instruments, this is a recording to get.

David McDade

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