Mozart Symphonies - SCO & Sir Charles Mackerras - StereoMojo
06 July 2009StereoMojo
Linn is now offering a new two CD set that features Sir Charles Mackerras's views of the last four Mozart symphonies. He is joined by the excellent Scottish Chamber Orchestra, a group that has become known world wide since the advent of the compact disc. In fact, it was featured as long ago as 1985 on some of the first "budget priced" CDs. What a blessing that was!! I paid something like 5 pounds for them in the UK, and in '85 that equaled about $7.00 or so. Those were the days...
Gorgeous sound and playing are what you'll hear should you choose this set over the hundreds of others still in the catalogue. (The "others" range from uniquely wrought to downright vile, so be careful...) The overall production quality of the Linn set goes beyond some of their other chamber products. Please understand that's not a dig at those efforts - quite the opposite. This effort receives the highest praise due to the balance of colors and tonalities achieved by producer James Mallinson and engineer Philip Hobbs. Aiding them is the venue: City Halls, in Glasgow, Scotland. This is a better location for a small chamber group than some of the churches used on other Linn CDs. Mallinson is a producer whose work I've admired for many years. I first became aware of his talents via the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's recordings of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies in the mid 1980s. They're still great to listen to.
Some recordings of Mozart's symphonies that include these symphonies are from my younger years. Bruno Walter, Igor Markevich, Rafael Kubelik, Eugen Jochum and later Colin Davis all have a special place on my shelves. I have at least three Böhm versions from various decades and there is a very special set with Pablo Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra in live concert. Those readings are sometimes seem "outdated" stylistically, or because the orchestra is too large. Still, I prefer them to most "early music" versions. Of those the best are from John Elliot Gardiner's performances. Those are played with a lighter quality than even Sir Charles manages. Gardiner is in a league of his own in discovering the odd dissonance or phrase that we're not used to hearing. But Mackerras has a few ideas of his own that are on a par with Gardiner.
Sir Charles sonorous opening and the use of all of Mozart's written repeats makes this a special product. This is rare on CD even now. In case you'd not noticed, repeats in classical music were considered to be passé by conductors and critics alike for much of the 20th century. Even the biggest names like von Karajan leave out these very necessary elements needed to balance each movement.
Continuing with an interesting fact these performances have a blend of modern and early instruments that give the sound a rich texture as well as a lot of clarity. If my ears are working correctly, Sir Charles has chosen to have his strings play with no vibrato. That's the "early music" approach. But these sting instruments are the standard versions used by modern orchestras. So are the winds. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is not an early music ensemble. He even keeps the pitch around A-440 while Gardiner clearly drops it to that of Mozart's time, A-435. Sir Charles has asked his brass players to use French Horns and trumpets that do not have keys and valves but instead using different "crooks" or lengths of tubing that are interchangeable for varying scales. These ‘antique' types of brass along side their modern fellows give us a "middle of the road" orchestral sound. Not very many people use this sort of combination of old and new. I think it's fine for Mozart. The large concert halls of today require the larger sounding strings; and some "early music" approaches have thinned out Mozart to the point of musical exsanguination. If you can hear these subtleties on your system, that's a good sign. They are a very good test of the upper midrange of your components. The trumpets occasionally have a blatant sort of attack; that is also due to mic placement and may have been done to bring out these instruments more fully.
My all time favorite symphony of Mozart is his 38th, or "Prague", in D major, K 504. This quirky 3 movement piece has no menuetto and trio making it a rare symphony compared to the others. Sir Charles achieves a loving sonority from the moment he begins. The strings are both full and clear. After a stirring first movement we come to what I think is one of Mozart's most remarkable compositions, the second movement Andante. Not until the Jupiter's curious modulations in its andante is there another that is quite as spell binding. It opens with the violins playing short chromatic melodic lines. The harmonies are not chromatic but stay within the diatonic framework that would only start to be upset on a regular basis by Beethoven in his later period. One hears this little melodic device throughout the movement until the final phrase of the exposition. Then Mozart writes a rising and descending chromatic scale in the bass line. The notes start on each string instrument's low G# and then play a fully chromatic four bar phrase in unison as the winds chords high above them all the while staying within the D/A major range. Looking at the score one sees two bars rising via sharps, and then two descending with flats. What genius is operating behind those four bars! This small moment defines how the conductor understands the piece for my money. Sir Charles is faster in his tempo than Walter in his tremendous reading from the 1950s. The balances and elegance of phrasing are the genuine article; this "Prague" Symphony has become a new favorite of mine. I could listen to the Andante for hours on end. I have never been completely sure why this short phrase has such appeal for me. But it does and I'm the happier for its existence. The ultra clear sound is fantastic and makes for amazing mixing of overtones as the harmonies zig-zag slowly from the winds. The finale is beautifully articulated as well. The recording allows us to "peer" into the orchestra.
The 39th Symphony has no nick name. It is in E flat, K 543. It receives the same kind of treatment that bathes the "Prague" in sunny sound. The first and second movements are every bit as fine with the martial first movement given just the right tempo and balance. The soft vs. loud moments are nicely done but won't cause you to jump up and down to set the gain - thank heaven for small favors. My only thought is that the trumpet sound is slightly brash in some of its sf moments. I think this oddly obvious sonority may have something to do with the key they are in. The timpani are also prominent. They have a softer attack than one sometimes hears yet work well none the less. The menuetto Allegretto 3rd movement tips its hat toward Haydn and has a barnyard stomp quality with its heavily accented downbeats and brisk tempo. The last movement is lively and fits Sir Charles's skills to a tee; it is not pushed in tempo but is always moving right along. This is one of those Mozartian moments that can get away from a conductor if they're not careful. Here the ensemble works together with ease. The overall contrasts are excellent in the fourth movement Sonata/Rondo. So this first CD contains two back to back triumphs.
CD two starts with the 40th, in G minor, K 550. I think it is Mozart's most famous symphony. From a compositional stand point it is the equal of the Jupiter. According to the notes, Sir Charles uses the revised version with clarinets. K 550's first movement starts with subtle pacing. I really want to gripe when this bittersweet melody based on just a few notes is played too fast. Not so here; marked in 2/2 Sir Charles finds both ominous and charming moments to dwell on. Rarely does one hear the 40th with both of those elements so well illuminated. The slow movement is another of Mozart's greatest wonders. While again not as slow as Walter's old Colombia version, one that will remain the standard for many, I think this is probably closer to what Mozart had in mind. Playing these movements very slowly can result in disaster if the conductor and orchestra are not complete suited to sort of tight rope walk. The menuetto (allegretto), according to every score I own, ought to be played in that dance tempo. There's plenty of latitude for sure, but in Sir Charles's hands it becomes a virtual scherzo. Now many others play it nearly as fast. Casals (oddly) makes it an extremely angry sounding ‘dance' that whips along, but Mackerras beats him to the end with ease. Gardiner treats it more as a true menuetto minus that angry thrust, even though he is famous for his fast tempi. No one ever treats it as a real Minuet, though and the music is not meant to be danced to. As it stands here I think Sir Charles's might go a bit too far; I don't get his reasoning in any event. The famous last movement in sonata form flies along but isn't clipped in its phrasing. This is a virtuoso performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to be sure. The fugato section of the development is beautifully delineated. Unlike other "fast" versions I don't get the sense it's going rapidly simply because the orchestra is able to play it that way. All the repeats of the final movements are taken and as a piece this is a splendid 40th.
The "Jupiter", as the 41st is known is Mozart's last statement in this form. It is K 551 in the key of C. This performance seems to have a larger string section than the earlier symphonies in the set do. It probably doesn't, but the sound is different than that of the other three. The division of the first and second violins is slightly more obvious. The possibility exists that I'm listening to too many masterpieces in a short period of time. That can certainly happen! Are there more violins? I don't know. So what I probably hear is a slight difference in the mic/mix set up. For some reason the balance between the winds and the strings is different than in the others as well, though it's neither better nor worse. Again, the martial quality of this first movement is brilliantly accomplished. Here the brass blends with the other parts of the orchestra more easily. I wonder if the key of C has something to do with it. The second movement has the strings playing with a lovely muted quality that is aided by the recorded sound. I have just a few questions. The first three notes in the violins sound a bit prosaic as articulated here. I've compared the way they are played to about seven other versions. Those notes are important constituents of the first theme, in fact they're vital. Somehow, they seem slightly clipped in between the first two. I don't think they should. It's a very minor point, but other conductors have expended great effort to get the slur over this dotted 8th and 16th note so that it is melodic in nature. Second, the final climax before the repeat in the Andante has the winds sounding too short when marked with dots over them. One of Mozart's most interesting modulations happens with the strings against the winds, but the strings must sound strong enough for it to be heard. Here they seem somewhat muted. I also listened to a number of different versions before coming to this conclusion. Maybe Sir Charles score is different from the others. But those are things that any Mozart lover is going to hear. Gardiner once again seems to find some of Mozart's most interesting dissonances in the passing notes of this phrase. The Menuetto marked Allegretto is played a bit more quickly than I'm used to from the others, but it stands on its own just fine. The finale of the Jupiter is one of Mozart's ultimate accomplishments. It augers the use of short "motifs" by Wagner and a host of other composers that takes place decades in the future. For 1788 it is an extraordinary piece of pure genius. Talk about going out on top. These five musical "themes" create the deftly woven structure of the finale and are laid out with complete mastery by Sir Charles and the orchestra. One can only say bravo.
I can't find any real complaints to register here, which is nice for a change. I think this set will compliment any collection of Mozart's final symphonies. The last three were written one after another in the summer of 1788, which seems almost unbelievable. The USA was just getting started. The French Revolution was just around the corner. Yet the forward looking nature of these pieces is strikingly obvious on this set. It may be more expensive than some other versions, but it's worth the money. I have so many collections of the late symphonies that I enjoy and now I now I have yet another that stands completely on its own merits.
Related LinksScottish Chamber OrchestraMozart: Symphonies 38-41