August 09, 2012
(++++) FROM EARLIEST TO LATEST
Mozart: Early Symphonies—No. 7a, “Alte Lambacher”; “Neue Lambacher”; Nos. 6-9, 12, 18-20 (with alternative slow movement for No. 19), 45-48, 50-52, 55. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. PentaTone. $39.99 (4 SACDs.)
Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Bernard Haitink. BR Klassik. $16.99.
A strange collection, the four-disc one labeled as “The Complete Youth Symphonies” of Mozart. The remastered analog sound is warm and rich; the recordings, which date to 1972 and 1973, are poised, elegant, and sensitive to the techniques of Mozart’s time even though they are not period-instrument performances. The music is delightful, whether or not it is by Mozart (the provenance of some of it remains uncertain). But what an odd presentation. These are not Mozart’s complete early symphonies, by any stretch of the imagination; one of them, the Neue Lambacher, is by Leopold Mozart; Nos. 45-47 may not be by Mozart at all; and No. 51 is performed twice, given the designation “K. 196/121” one time and simply “K. 121” the other. Were the music itself not so exhilarating, were not the playing of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields such a joy, this set would sink under the weight of its own peculiarities. But it doesn’t, and that is testimony to the players, to Sir Neville Marriner, and above all to Mozart, whose earliest works (and these are some of them) have charm, poise and beauty even though they exhibit few, if any, of the characteristics of his later, far more fully developed symphonies. Some of these early symphonies are in three movements, some in four, and several draw on or even duplicate overtures to Mozart’s early operas: La finta giardiniera, La finta semplice, Apollo et Hyacinthus, Ascanio in Alba, and the dramatic serenade Il sogno di Scipione. Generally, the works not tied into theatrical performances might as well be: they partake of the lightness characteristic of the Italian sinfonia, which was interchangeable with the opera overture and was only later replaced by the sort of overture familiar from Mozart’s later operas. Many of these symphonies are virtually indistinguishable from others of the 1760s and 1770s, but even in these early works, composed during Mozart’s teen years, some pieces stand out with exceptional balance, authoritative use of orchestral forces, and Mozart’s distinctive blend of melodiousness, harmonic assurance and absolute formal mastery. The four-movement Symphonies Nos. 18 and 20 (both from 1772) are highlights, and so is the earlier No. 8 (1768) – Mozart’s first to use trumpets and drums. Listeners will find much to enjoy even in the works with less of a “Mozart flavor,” and since the symphonies are intermingled on the discs in no particular order (another oddity of this set), it is enjoyable to hear one of greater maturity adjacent to one that is clearly less developed. There is no reason for repeating No. 51, which consists primarily of the overture to La finta giardiniera, but there is a good rationale for presenting both slow movements written for No. 19, one of the weightier works here: the Andante is expressive and surprisingly intense, while the alternative Andantino grazioso treats the orchestra in an interesting way by creating a dialogue between violins and oboes, on the one hand, and the rest of the orchestra, on the other. The numbering of these early works, incidentally, makes it abundantly clear that Mozart did not write the “41 symphonies” usually thought of as canonic, ending with the “Jupiter.” But in fact that number, 41, has long been known to be incorrect: No. 37 is actually by Michael Haydn, although Mozart wrote the introduction to the first movement. So one thing this beautifully played but strangely presented set shows is that there is more to the Mozart symphonic oeuvre than can be encompassed by the traditional numbering system.
There is, by contrast, little dispute about the numbering of Mahler’s symphonies, although there is argument about whether Das Lied von der Erde is really No. 9 and whether the one given the No. 9 designation is the composer’s last symphonic word or whether that honor goes to the unfinished No. 10. Most conductors do handle No. 9 as an 80-minute Abschied, although there is considerable disagreement on the question of whether the putative farewell to life is an anguished, resigned or nostalgic one. Bernard Haitink, one of the great Mahler conductors, has led and recorded this work often enough to have had a variety of different perspectives on it. The new release from BR Klassik, a live performance from December 2011, has an exceptionally intense and heartfelt first movement, filled with grief. From the start, this movement pulls listeners into a world of regret, which only deepens – although not quite all the way into depressive gloom – as the movement progresses. The second movement is an exceptionally effective contrast, its pastoral simplicity offering comfort through closeness with nature: the movement almost rocks the listener into repose, although, again, it never quite attains the feeling toward which it seems always to move. The second half of this performance is not quite as effective as the first, although it is still very fine. The Rondo-Burleske is played somewhat too smoothly – the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks does not seem to know how to snarl – and although it is certainly hectic enough, it never realty becomes grotesque, even at the very end. Therefore, when the final Adagio begins, it offers less contrast and less respite than it otherwise might. What it does proffer, though, is gentleness and a kind of “peace that passeth all understanding.” There is resignation here, to be sure, but it is a kind of serenity, not a sense of despair, that permeates the music. Haitink’s pacing here may not please all listeners: the finale lasts just over 23 minutes, which is quite fast. But the speed works once a listener grows accustomed to it – which admittedly may take a minute or two. Haitink shapes the music so well and keeps it flowing so smoothly that the passage of time soon becomes irrelevant as he immerses himself, the orchestra and the audience in a conclusion that, far from being emotionally wrenching, eventually brings a sense of calm mixed with inevitability. As a whole, this is a convincing and often lovely performance, very well and stylishly played, from a master Mahler conductor whose last word on Symphony No. 9 this is unlikely to be.