Mozart Symphonies - SCO & Sir Charles Mackerras - International Record Review

This superb set continues the extraordinary series of recordings made by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Charles Mackerras, including complete Beethoven and Brahms cycles (on Hyperion and Telarc, respectively) that have been revelatory. Mackerras made a much earlier recording of Nos. 40 and 41 (CFP) and conducted what is perhaps the most satisfying of all the complete cycles of Mozart symphonies (with the Prague Chamber Orchestra on Telarc), but he hits a new high with this new set of Mozart's last four symphonies with the glorious Scottish Chamber Orchestra: here is a magnificent addition to the Mozart discography. As is to be expected, Mackerras encourages a playing style that is informed by historical performance evidence, but he does so in a way that is completely undoctrinaire: there is limited use of vibrato by the strings, timpani are crisp, natural horns bring a freshness and openness to the brass sound and the balance between woodwind and strings is beautifully managed.

All that sounds welcome enough, but there is so much more to these performances. This is Mozart-conducting and playing of the highest quality, captured in superlative recorded sound. As a case-study, the finale of the Jupiter Symphony is a useful example of what makes this set so impressive. The tempo is judged to perfection: it's quick (as it should be), but more importantly, it bristles with rhythmic energy (a notable feature of the outer movements throughout the set, including a tremendous finale to No. 40). Then there are the dazzling complex contrapuntal strands of this music: Mackerras and his players achieve far more than mere clarity. Lines are invested with a character and sense of direction that made me listen on the edge of my seat through repeated hearings (indeed, a class of my undergraduates burst into spontaneous applause after I played them this movement).

So Mozart's kaleidoscopic textures are exquisitely contrasted, and there's no sense of relentlessness, as is always the case in this mighty finale, but always thrilling urgency and an unerring sense of trajectory. The virtuoso orchestration of this movement has seldom been celebrated in such style as it is here. One moment the mood is of bustling opera buffa, the next of almost Mendelssohnian lightness, the next of contrapuntal majesty - and this new set captures all this in the most compelling way imaginable. To have all the repeats in the movement invests the music with its appropriate scale and stature. The solo wind playing is beautifully pointed and the woodwind chorus is simply magical at one of the great moments in the finale (5'34" in), where wind instruments echo the strings - this is orchestral playing of jaw-dropping beauty. Mackerras's sense of Mozartian ebb and flow is second to none and here it produces music-making of well-nigh incomparable power and persuasiveness. I hope this doesn't sound like hyperbole, but if it does, all I can do is urge listeners to try the set for themselves. One tiny technical question about the Jupiter finale: is that someone scraping a chair during the very first note?

I hope that rather lengthy description gives some idea of what to expect here. The rest of No. 41 is joyous, celebratory and frankly magnificent - to which should be added the ravishing and incredibly original sonority of muted strings in the slow movement - and the other three symphonies are on a similarly exalted level. The great G minor (No. 40) is another performance that immediately earns a place among the finest I know: the sense of tragic, nervous energy is caught superbly - a reading that can stand alongside the best (from Toscanini's stunning reading - on Naxos historical - onwards). The first movement of the Prague Symphony is of epic proportions and Mackerras and his players combine that sense of scale with a reading that fizzes with vitality, which is never less than beautifully balanced and poised. All the same qualities are to be found in No. 39.

Among recordings of the late symphonies, there are some unforgettable rival versions, the more animated and energetic of them including the likes of Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, and Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. This new set is on the same kind of level: a vibrant and utterly gripping appearance from first moment to last, and all caught in sound that is amazingly lifelike. The utterly fascinating booklet notes are by the great Mozart scholar Neal Zaslaw, as well as Mackerras himself. No Mozartian should be without these inspiring discs.

03 March 2008