Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K504, ‘Prague’ (1786) [38:55]
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K543 (1788) [32:13]
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Andrew Manze
rec. 13-18 March 2021, Großer Sendesaal/NDR Landesfunkhaus, Hanover, Germany
PENTATONE PTC5186765 [71:21]
In terms of repertoire you can hardly get more ‘standard’ than Mozart’s last four symphonies. And yet, how often do we listen to them? They are works that most of us probably grew up with, and of which we tend to have our own favourite interpretations. In the case of the two symphonies on this disc, I grew up with Jochum in the ‘Prague’, a marvellous reading originally on the Philips label and now gloriously available on Eloquence, and Barenboim in No. 39. I have heard other performances over the years, of course, both on record and in concert, but have always been happy to return to those two. That will not change, but this new issue from Andrew Manze and his superb Hanover-based orchestra will complement the others in a most satisfying way.
The ‘Prague’ is a big symphony, making a big effect, and that notwithstanding the absence of the usual minuet and trio movement. It teems with invention and contrapuntal mastery. Manze’s approach is to underline the ‘bigness’ with a robust staccato attack in the first movement. He also observes all the repeats, making this first movement into a whopping 18½ minutes. From the imposing introduction with its implacable tread this is quite clearly a large-boned performance. This is not to say that it is the ‘big band’ Mozart that has been frowned upon for decades now. No, the strings play without vibrato, and make a satisfyingly lean sound, though they sound reasonably numerous; and that leanness does not eschew richness of tone, to be found in abundance in a highly expressive performance of the slow movement. The finale goes at a cracking pace, more light-hearted than the rest of the work, but with its serious side too. The strings play with great brilliance here, but the winds also make their mark, particularly the pair of bassoons to which Mozart has given numerous passages that must be particular fun to play.
The excellent booklet note makes great play of the contrast between the two works, but Manze doesn’t seem to have read it, as his reading of the glorious 39th is much in line with that of the (slightly) earlier work. There have been many recordings of this symphony in recent years, but I rarely remember a performance in which the first movement introduction is given with quite so much vehemence as here. Those harrowing major seventh dissonances – how I remember being struck by those the first time I heard the work so many years ago! – make more sense in such a pointed and dramatic reading as this one. The main allegro opens into sunnier climes, but even here, and despite some discreet portamento, Manze’s principal aim is clearly not prettiness but to bring out the muscularity of the music. I am all for this approach to Mozart, one which extends even to the short-lived but stormy minor key passage in the otherwise tenderly expressed slow movement. The minuet is on the rapid side, all of a piece with the overall view of the work, but with a very light easing of tempo for the delicious trio and its bubbling clarinets. In this symphony too, Manze once again takes all the repeats, even to the point of respecting the repeats after the trio. The finale, too, is given with both halves repeated, a splendidly lithe and energetic performance with just the slightest reining back of the final statement of the theme to show that the work has ended.
Pentatone have also released a disc of Manze conducting the two final symphonies, 40 and 41. I have not heard that disc, but certainly intend to. There, the recordings apparently originate from live performances. There is nothing on the present issue to indicate the same. The recording is crystal clear, immediate, superb. Lovers of Jochum, Barenboim and scores of others in this repertoire can invest in these performances without hesitation. For those lucky enough to be ‘growing up’ with these miraculous works I can think of no better place to start than this outstanding disc.
Previous review: David McDade