Mozart Symphonies - SCO & Sir Charles Mackerras - Atlanta Audio Society

Sir Charles Mackerras has enjoyed a distinguished recording career, going back to the early years of the stereo era. In all that time, and with more than 300 recordings still on the market, he seems never to have had a bad day in the studio (a key: Mackerras always has thoroughly notated orchestral parts, so as to have the precious time to work on interpretive matters with the musicians). At the age of 82, he wasn't about to go bad on us.

And he doesn't disappoint here, leading the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Mozart's Symphonies 38 thru 41. Critics in the U.K. have been talking this set up as if it were the greatest thing since the last match between Arsenal and United. The amazing thing about all this praise is that it is not just empty hype. The ebullient Aussie communicates the essence of Mozart to a splendid orchestra in performances marked by a keen sense of movement and a feeling for rhythmic values. The result: performances that may well take their place among the best on record.

There is good reason for programming Symphony No. 38 in D, K504, the "Prague," with the three last symphonies Mozart penned in the remarkably short space of six weeks in the late summer of 1788. These works all reflect Mozart's intensive study of Bach. All benefit from increased contrapuntal muscle and a monumental form that was new to symphonic writing. You get a feeling of grandeur in the Mackerras performances, a feeling of sweep and continuously probing movement. Mackerras is particularly adept in taking the forte outbursts in the opening movements of Symphonies 38 and 41, the "Jupiter," right in tempo without pausing even slightly, so as not to undercut their effectiveness by "telegraphing his punches," as they say in the fight game.

Sir Charles shows a nice feeling for color and nuance in all these performances. He is helped immeasurably by the high level of musicianship among the SCO players, particularly the woodwind soloists. These late symphonies are marked by the number of glowing obbligato passages for the winds, including the clarinet, an instrument that was new to the orchestra. It first makes its appearance in Symphony No. 39 in E-flat. K543, where it pervades the color palette of the entire work. It is particularly striking in the trio of the minuet, where the first clarinet plays serenely in its high register while the second chatters away playfully two octaves below.

Mackerras shows a fine discrimination in the various mood shadings of Mozart's slow movements. All are Andantes but with vital differences. The Andante in 38 is marked by major/ minor changes, the overall mood being that of an operatic scene. 40's is sad and yearning, in keeping with the striking emotional range of this work. That of 39 is delicately expressive, "romantic" music before its time, while the Andante in 41, with the added color of muted violins, is marked by serene beauty.

There are only three good ways to begin a symphony, and Mozart uses them all in his last three symphonies, opening with an attention getting coup d'achet  (literally, hatchet chop) in 39, plunging without warning right into the middle of the action in 40, and beginning with a slow introduction leading up to the principal theme in 41. Mozart's finales are also very striking: listen for the chattering bassoons and clarinets in the Allegro finale of 39, where the sweep and perpetual movement of the performance give the impression that the movement could go on forever until Mozart decides otherwise, bringing matters to a surprise halt.

01 March 2008