Mozart Season 2009: Symphonies from Levine, Botstein, and Mackerras

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Sir Charles Mackerras, Portrait by June Mendoza
Sir Charles Mackerras, Portrait by June Mendoza

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor

Linn Records CKD 308 (Winner of the 2009 Classical BRIT Critics’ Award)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 38 in D major (‘Prague’), K.504
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K.543
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550
Symphony No. 41 in C major (‘Jupiter’)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, conductor

Thursday, February 12, 8 pm; Friday, February 13, 8 pm
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphonies Nos. 1, 4, 7, 13, and 14

Saturday, February 14, 8 pm; Tuesday, February 17, 8 pm
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphonies Nos. 15, 19, 21, and 25

Thursday, February 19, 10:30 a.m. (Open Rehearsal); Thursday February 19, 8 pm; Friday, February 20, 1:30 pm; Saturday, February 21, 8 pm
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 39
Symphony No. 40
Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter”

Sosnoff Auditorium, Fisher Center, Bard College
Friday, February 6, and Saturday, February 7, 2009
American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, Music Director

George Tsontakis, Clair de Lune
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”
Felix Mendelssohn, Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Silvestre Revueltas, La Noche de los Mayas

Now is as good a time as any to survey recent performances of Mozart’s symphonies, since Linn Records’ Mozart Symphonies 38 – 41 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras has just won the Critics Award of Classical BRIT. Sir Charles’ earlier cycle of Mozart symphonies with the Prague Chamber Orchestra on Telarc won numerous prizes and remained at the top of many critics’ shortlists for many years. Now he has returned to the last four symphonies: the “Prague,” K. 504, K. 543, K. 550, and K. 551, the “Jupiter,” with the incomparable Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Linn’s incomparable recording technique. (Good news! This summer Sir Charles and the SCO will record five earlier symphonies, K. 201, K. 297, “Paris,” K. 318, K. 385, “Haffner,” and K. 425, “Linz.”) When Sir Charles, who is now 84, approaches a cycle of concerts or recordings, he usually has some new concept in mind behind the project, so that his approach not only has an innovative premise, it is musically fresh as well. He never repeats himself.

Other conductors have recently been at work on Mozart as well. Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra played a highly unusual and musically stunning “Jupiter” at the Fisher Center at Bard earlier this year in a typically serendipitous program, which culminated in Silvestre Revueltas’ over-the-top La noche de los Mayas (1939). In a more predictable vein, James Levine closed his seasonal stint at the Boston Symphony in February with a series of three concerts devoted to a wide range of early and late symphonies. The first concert covered Mozart from the age of eight to sixteen; the second focused on his mid-teens; and the last consisted of the great final symphonies, K. 543, K. 550, and K. 551. Unfortunately the harsh winter weather and an ailing vehicle prevented my attending the concerts, but I heard a good part of them in excellent sound on WGBH’s HD streaming feed, and feel able to comment on them.

One thing Levine, Botstein, and Mackerras all agree on is the importance of Mozart’s repeats. The symphonies, while not exactly crippled by their omission, lose a vital dimension—their architectural balance. (The pedimental façades of the Parthenon have their eight columns, not five or six, after all.) Above all the final movements really need their full expanse to bring Mozart’s symphonic process to a full conclusion, to anchor the elevations to their ground plan…and logically all the rest follows suit. On the other hand, this commendable modern approach was preceded by a generation of eloquent interpreters who found this formal repetition of little importance. In the early twentieth century Mozart’s music was viewed as limited by convention, and the repeats seemed unnecessary and boring, especially as his music became more familiar. One could understand the expositional repeat as necessary for the connoisseur, the Kenner, Mozart’s favorite audience, to appreciate the all-important “working-out,” in which he was a brilliant as Haydn and Beethoven, but it was hardly necessary for twentieth century audiences, who had presumably heard the music many times before. In programming, Mozart symphonies, as a nod to the past, were the shorter works before the intermission, and lengthening them with repeats would bore or irritate the audience, who were looking forward to their transcendent Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or Beethoven in the second half. The limitations of 78 rpm sides (and later, lp’s) further entrenched the convention. Today we can enjoy a whole library of splendid performances that ignored the repeats: Weingartner, Beecham, Furtwängler, Walter, Böhm, Erich Kleiber, Josef Krips, and more. Many of us grew up on this aesthetic, according to which the finale of K. 543 sped farcically past our noses and that of K. 550 struck like a lightning bolt and vanished into a darkling sky.

I’ll begin with James Levine’s series with the BSO as the most conservative of the efforts. Even before he came to Boston, he began to let go of the Viennese conventions he cultivated so assiduously in the 1980’s. Levine clearly wants to achieve a style of playing that is consistent with the BSO’s heterogeneous, largely French, traditions. We hear little if any of the then nostalgic portamento prominent in his earlier work, but rather the particular style he has been developing in Boston. There is plenty of vibrato in the string playing—a gorgeous, perfectly centered timbre, and full wind tone—the BSO winds with all their richness and elegance, in fact. In essence we are not all that far from Levine’s Viennese work, or that of his models, above all Krips. These performances were full of the grand, broad tempi we know and love from the old hands; dots were never doubled; the phrasing likewise carried on the performance tradition which developed from the Treaty of Versailles and before up to the emergence of Colin Davis, Neville Marriner, Frans Brüggen, and, most germanely at the moment, Charles Mackerras.

What was most unexpected in these concerts was the success of the earlier symphonies. Usually, when a mainstream symphony orchestra, especially an American one, attempts anything Mozart wrote before the “little” G minor symphony (K. 183), the results are sluggish and porridgy. This was not at all the case in the delightful performances I heard, at least from the house microphones’ standpoint. They were clear, exquisitely balanced, and as nimble as could be. Albeit with a smaller crew, Levine approached them as he did the late symphonies. There was no historicism in the phrasing, and the amoroso tunes were espressivo in Levine’s best post-Wagnerian style—which is perfectly fine in the context they were in. Boston has the Handel & Haydn Society, Boston Baroque and other groups for authenticity.

The three final symphonies were all grand in concept and sumptuous in execution, never impeding Levine’s access to the deeper levels of the music. For example, the main subject in the first movement of the G Minor was both elegant and elegiac, and the BSO’s substantial textures and the weight of the fortissimi reinforced its hints of the tragic, which later came to the fore in the final movement, likewise compellingly realized. Levine allowed the slow movement to unfold in its full, meditative beauty, implying, without actually reaching, the entropic stasis at the core of the symphony.

Both the E Flat and the “Jupiter” were on the same high level. In poking about the wonderful and truly addictive Gramophone Archive to fill out the history of Mozart’s symphonies in recordings, I found the following trenchant observation in a review of Bruno Walter’s 1938 recording of the “Jupiter” with the Vienna Philharmonic: “I have long lived in hope of finding a recording that makes the finale of this work sound as big as the notes look. I have heard it so in the concert room, but not even (I venture to say) in Beecham’s fine recording. It may be that, having this work as one of my earliest impressions of symphonic greatness, I have always held a rather exaggerated idea of what human hands and lips can do towards making the dream of that astonishing finale come true.” Even in the hall, the great “Jupiter” usually eludes full incarnation. (Of course I haven’t had the good fortune to have been going to concerts in the 1930’s.) Much of Mozart’s work was considered to be “difficult” music in its own time. As simple as its C Major components are, the “Jupiter” is a thoroughly radical work, as far ahead of its time as anything of Schoenberg or Webern—ironically, composers especially dear to Maestro Levine. While it is difficult to find fault with their intelligently thought-through and beautifully executed performance—the semi-fugal finale had all the clarity and space it needs, Levine approached it basically from the same direction as the other symphonies. His performance of the final movement was rooted in the dramatic progression of the music through the development to the recapitulation, above all of the great fugal sections. In this way it did full justice to the grandeur and generosity of Mozart’s concept without turning his back on the inherited stylistic galanterie. Does it take a Klemperer to bring out its radicalism?

Leon Botstein was more successful in that respect, when he led the American Symphony Orchestra in the “Jupiter” Symphony in Sosnoff Auditorium. Readers will remember my affection for the ASO, as excellent an orchestra as ever, and at the height of their season, they are a match for any orchestra, as they were on this occasion. Dr. Botstein appeared to be in a playful cunctatory mood, as the concert began late, and he apologized for forgetting, on the previous evening, to allow Bard’s distinguished composer-in-residence, George Tsontakis, to introduce his Clair de Lune, which opened the program. Mr Tsontakis did indeed speak at the second concert. Clair de Lune proved an elegant, poetic work, deeply satisfying, which was an hommage to Debussy only on a fairly superficial level. Mr. Tsontakis pursued his allusions well into his own 21st century language. This suggestive night piece could not have been a more effective preparation for the full daylight of Mozart’s C Major.

However, after the final, enthusiastic applause for Clair de Lune, the ASO disappeared and stage hands took over. They carried first the music stands, then the chairs, after bringing in risers, to uncustomary places on the stage. The stands in the front were at chest height and remained chairless. In fact the only chairs were on the risers, one on the left and one on the right. Then the stage hands disappeared, and the audience were left to themselves to contemplate the arrangement, which suggested that we had perhaps a baroque double concerto in store and not the familiar old “Jupiter.” The orchestra filed in, indeed split into a sort of double orchestra. Violins and violas stood split across the stage. Cellos sat on their two sets of risers, and double basses stood at either side. Brass and wind stood behind. If this were the Scottish Chamber Orchestra we could expect the string players to be sporting gut strings and the winds period instruments, but not so in this case. However, a foot or two between the instrument and the floor makes a big difference, not to mention the physical freedom for the musicians. It is striking how much more acoustic space this produces around the individual instruments, and it is not uncommon for period instrument groups to observe this. Finally, after giving us plenty of time to take it all in, Dr. Botstein appeared, turned to the puzzled audience, and spoke. He explained that the ASO would be adopting the seating used by Haydn’s orchestra for his Salomon concerts in London. Now we know much more about these public concerts than we do about the first performance of the “Jupiter,” which could well have involved quite a different seating. (This is significant, because Mackerras’ premises in this regard are quite different.) However, the Salomon arrangement is documented…and why not try it? The result was sharp but resonant clarity, and an expressive ease in the violins and violas. Through the first three movements, especially in the first, which is, after all, marked allegro vivace, Dr. Botstein maintained a crisp, active pace. The opening phrases were brisk, setting up a momentum which would only expand for the great final movement. The second movement never sagged, although Botstein indulged in some extremely rich textures in the minor B-section, in which the music seemed to dissolve into a moody blend of misty harmony and texture, a reminder that romanticism was the mysterious stranger who came a-knocking at Mozart’s door at the end of his brief life. The final movement was brilliant. The ASO’s standing strings were able to combine lucidity, balance, and expressiveness, while Dr. Botstein attended to the structural signposts of Mozart’s contrapuntal edifice. As refined as was the BSO’s work under their music director, I must say that this “Jupiter” was the most enlightening experience of Mozart season…and the ASO played like gods!

This is a Mozart article, and I cannot wander, but the Bard concert concluded with a masterpiece by another short-lived composer, Silvestre Revueltas. He wrote La Noche de los Mayas as a film score, and after his death it was adapted into an orchestral suite, which is almost tight enough to be a symphony. This brilliant, colorful work had plenty of Stravinsky and Ravel in it, but most of all Revueltas’ own eclectic passion for the traditional music of his own country, Mexico. An immense array of percussion was spread across the back wall, and, when the some dozen players set to work, the result was spectacular. As usual the ASO responded with terrific enthusiasm, and it’s an equally terrific pleasure to hear and see and orchestra have so much fun exploring the more adventurous tributaries of great music.

It looks as if Sir Charles’ Mozart Symphonies will fill the same authoritative position as his Prague cycle from the mid-1980’s on Telarc, which, like Linn, began as an audiophile label. Digital recording, of course, was still in its dark ages in 1986, but Telarc certainly offered close to the best available at the time. Linn, on the other hand, represents the state of the recording art in the present. While only a few bars will show the shortcomings of digital technology during its first decade, Telarc set the Prague Chamber Orchestra well back in an attractively reverberant space. Their playing is also first rate, incisively phrased and wonderfully expressive in broad lyrical phrases, but not quite a match for the SCO. As much as I like the the old Prague set—and I am certainly not about to give the one disc I have from it away—the Linn release is the one to have. While the early set aimed at an almost romantic spaciousness, the new one strives for presence and intimacy, and there is a reason for this. As Neal Zaslaw observes in his lively notes, concert venues in Mozart’s Vienna were small. Orchestras were small. And this was especially true in 1788, when Mozart wrote his three last symphonies. An ill-conceived war against the Turks depopulated Vienna of her aristocrats, who were in a position to enjoy and pay for Mozart’s symphonies, sending them either into battle or off to their country estates. Zaslaw points out that the audiences sat close to the musicians, and, at private concerts, even among them, to observe or to play along on their own instruments. This is the sort of experience Linn’s producer, veteran James Mallinson and engineer Philip Hobbs were attempting to recreate in the recording. Another significant difference is that the SCO are playing period instruments. In their regular concert schedule they switch back and forth and are equally comfortable with historical instruments or modern.

The booklet also contains a brief note by Sir Charles himself, in which he focuses on tone color, harmonic progressions, and on particular details which make each symphony unique, for example the “almost Schoenbergian tone row” in the development of the finale of the G Minor. In this case there is not quite the mass of information as there was behind his ground-breaking and essential recordings of Brahms’ symphonies in the style of their early performances with the Meiningen Orchestra, but his observations are as enlightening as the performances themselves. It is difficult to convey this wonderful achievement without describing it bar by bar, phrase by phrase, but these notes will have to suffice.

The elaborate slow introduction to the “Prague” Symphony opens with solemn chords, glowing with the brilliant, biting sound of valveless period trumpets, and proceeds broadly, as its affectingly phrased lyric lines unfold before us. When the nervous, syncopated accompaniment to the first subject appears, we immediately focus on the quiet but toothy attacks of the gut strings articulating the repeated notes of the theme. There is not only an impressive dynamic range, but a great variety of color and spatial relationships in the intimate sounds of the reduced string band, as they interact with winds, brass, and tympani. Tutti have a muscular core of brass. The contrapuntal development is crystal clear, and we have a full sense of the interplay of the musicians. Sir Charles balances the orchestral voices most carefully to bring out the color and meaning of Mozart’s harmonic progressions. The harmonic miracle in the recapitulation is breathtaking. The wistful phrases that we are more accustomed to hearing as rather fuzzy gestures of strings and winds jump forward as nuanced dialogues among the orchestral choirs: soft attacks, sharp attacks, feminine cadences, Sir Charles renders every nuance to a kind of perfection. All the color, expressiveness, and nuance of Sir Charles’ highly developed understanding of Mozartian style on period instruments make for a major step forward in our understanding of the symphonies.

The E flat begins with magnificently balanced chords and resonant drum rolls leading into a double-dotted meter, redolent of the eighteenth century. The impeccable intonation of the SCO’s first violins provides just what is needed as Mozart searches with tentative inspiration for his home key. The first subject gets the exposition off to an athletic start, which never compromises the expansive, dreamy theme which follows. Sir Charles moves into the coda with a thrillingly energetic and sweeping cadence worthy of Furtwängler. The slow movement is both pensive and yearning; it has both breadth and nerve, which comes to the fore in the agitated second section. The eloquent playing of the SCO lower strings and winds on their period instruments is invaluable here, not to mention in the clarinet duo of the trio. Sir Charles’ athleticism continues through the minuet to the crisply articulated finale, where the balance of upper and lower strings, throaty valveless horns in the middle, and the observation of all the repeats give the movement the necessary ballast to keep it from flying off into the aether like an exuberant salamander.

In the first movement of the G Minor the marvellous variegation of string color, only possible with gut-stringed instruments in hands as capable as the SCO’s, are a marvel in both the first and second movements. As in the others, this slow movement is a marvel of lyrical inwardness and alert precision, resplendent with a vast range of subtle timbres. The minuet is rapid and bracing, tempered by an ardent yearning in the trio. (Sir Charles’ ready access to these unsettled youthful moods is a particularly interesting feature of the entire series.) The SCO’s precision, which often strikes me as the fulfilment of what Szell attempted to achieve somewhat too purposefully with the Cleveland Orchestra, is matchless. The final chord, with its ghost of a resonance in the celli, hinting perhaps of a resigned final breath, is one more epiphany in this adventure.

Inevitably the textures of opening movement of the “Jupiter” are more massive, and the gait is broader. Sir Charles also strives for breadth and the long line in the slow movement. As his program notes suggest, he does wonders with the color gamut of the muted strings, which are rare in Mozart’s works, not to mention their particular color against bassoons, flutes, and horns towards the conclusion. The minuet has a flowing, Ländler-like swing to it. After a broad statement of the the main theme in first violins, the great finale erupts, almost, in a burst of contrapuntal energy, settling into a steady, but urgent pace, over which we can hear the details of Mozart’s amazing writing, as well as to allow the grand wisps of melody to breeze over the pedal points below them. The litheness and clarity of the double-basses also make a difference here. Brass are ready at hand to add a jubilant accent, especially at the end of phrases and sections. The grandeur of the final fugal section and coda is consummate. So ends the first instalment of the greatest interpretation of the Mozart symphonies of our moment, one in which the scholarship and craft of historical interpretation lead to a real extension of our understanding of these essential works.

In celebration of their well-deserved Classical BRIT award, Linn Records are offering a free download of the Finale of the “Prague” in any format you choose. Everyone should take advantage of this, if they need some further encouragement to buy this set, but even more so, if he or she has not sampled Linn’s 24-bit studio master downloads. Their detail, freedom from artefacts and congestion, and spatial openness are far superior to any CD, even Linn’s. This also enters you into a free prize draw to win a Linn DS audio system. The prize includes a Sneaky Music DS player and a pair of Komponent 104 loudspeakers worth £1395.

WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By :