A quartet of recent recordings we've enjoyed
On July 25, 1788, Mozart completed his G minor Symphony, No 40 – before presumably starting immediately in on work on the Jupiter Symphony, No 41, which he completed by August 10. Here's a quartet of recent recordings of No 40 which caught our ear!
Symphonies Nos 38-41
Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras
Linn CKD308 (139’ · DDD/DSD). Buy from Amazon
There is no need to argue the credentials of Sir Charles Mackerras as a Mozart interpreter, so let us just say that these CDs contain no surprises – they’re every bit as good as you would expect. Like many modern-instrument performances these days it shows the period-orchestra influence in its lean sound, agile dynamic contrasts, sparing string vibrato, rasping brass, sharp-edged timpani and prominent woodwind, though given Mackerras’s long revisionist track-record it seems an insult to suggest that he would not have arrived at such a sound of his own accord. And in any case his handling of it – joyously supported by the playing of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – is supremely skilled; rarely will you hear such well judged orchestral balance, such effective marrying of textural transparency and substance.
Seldom, either, will you hear such expertly chosen tempi; generally these performances are on the quick side, but rather than seeming hard-driven they exude forward momentum effortlessly worn. Nowhere is this better shown than in the slow movements (even with all their repeats they never flag, yet their shifting expressive moods are still tenderly drawn), but also conspicuously successful are the slow introductions to Symphonies Nos 38 and 39 and the Minuet movements of Nos 40 and 39.
There’s a clarity to the acoustic as recorded in Glasgow’s City Halls, which Mackerras uses to his advantage, instinctively bringing out telling inner lines. These are not Mozart performances for the romantics out there, but neither are they in the least lacking in humanity. No, this is thoroughly modern-day Mozart, full of wisdom and leaving the listener in no doubt of the music’s ineffable greatness.
Symphonies Nos 39-41. Bassoon Concerto
Jane Gower (bn) Anima Eterna / Jos van Immerseel
Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT030501 (104’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Jos van Immerseel sets quickish tempi in almost all the movements of Symphonies Nos 39 and 40. The overall effect is of vitality, brightness and clarity, with contrapuntal interplay much more apparent than usual. There are few of the usual tragic overtones in the gracefully played Andante of No 39, or the usual darkness and foreboding in No 40. All this comes partly from the period instruments and the perceptive way they’re handled. Van Immerseel balances them carefully, has little or no string vibrato and clearly requires precise articulation. That’s why we hear more of the inner lines.
In the Jupiter, however, the approach is less chamber-music-like. This is a trumpets-and-drums symphony, so the manner is more forceful, sometimes rather abrupt; but the first movement is powerfully shaped. Again a quickish Andante with Mozart’s textures illuminated to fine effect. The dense writing in the Minuet profits from a finely balanced texture, and so above all does the finale, where you’re constantly aware of all that’s going on below the surface. It’s passionate, too: listen to those timpani thwacks in the development and the power of the extraordinary recapitulation. The amazing five-part counterpoint of the coda is heard with unprecedented clarity.
These may not be everyone’s performances. But they should be treasured: if you think you know these symphonies back to front, these versions will enable you to listen to the music afresh and hear new things in it. The Bassoon Concerto filler is enjoyably played by Jane Gower on a period bassoon, delightfully uneven in tone but always beautifully tuned and with many neatly imaginative touches.
Symphonies Nos 40 & 41, 'Jupiter'. Idomeneo - Ballet Music
Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski
Archiv Produktion 477 5798AH (78' · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Symphonies Nos 40 & 41, 'Jupiter'
Manchester Camerata / Douglas Boyd
Avie AV2107 (64' · DDD) Recorded live in 2006. Buy from Amazon
Marc Minkowski's coupling of the last two Mozart symphonies is truly individual, arrestingly weighty and very much forward-looking. But the comparison with Douglas Boyd and the Manchester Camerata is illuminating; his is a vibrant, athletic, smaller scale approach, with crisp enunciation of allegros, cleanly and clearly recorded. Perhaps (and this can only be conjecture) the Manchester account represents more closely the dramatic and emotional scale Mozart would have expected – before the arrival of Beethoven.
Both conductors show similar pacing and both begin the G minor briskly. It is not easy to get this movement right but each catches the emotional feel in his own way, and that sense of Mozartian melancholy is always beneath the surface. Minkowski is particularly persuasive, helped by a slightly wanner acoustic, and the string playing of the Louvre musicians in the slow movement is very beautiful, with a fuller texture than in Manchester. But Boyd's lightness of touch and the delicate Mancunian string phrasing is also telling in the Andante, while the woodwind chirrups are even more delightful. The Minuet is bold and brisk, weightier than Manchester, and the more lyrical Trio brings some superb horn-playing. But Boyd asserts his own individuality with a gentle hesitation after the wind duplet at its opening. Both finales are zesty.
Not surprisingly, it is in the Jupiter that Minkowski triumphs. He has greater orchestral weight and the first movement is vigorously pressed forward with hard-edged timpani strokes. The slow movement is again very beautiful, yet with uneasy undercurrents. The Minuet again moves on strongly and brightly, preparing the way for the powerful, unstoppable finale. All necessary repeats are used to build to a massive and thrilling apotheosis. Boyd's incisiveness is telling, too, and there is no lack of adrenalin in Manchester. But the timpani have less edge, and it is the Archiv performance that carries all before it, approaching the heroism of Beethoven. The ldomeneo ballet music, in the spirit of a sinfonia, makes a telling bonus and the outstanding, vivid recording makes it a compelling CD indeed.