Even if you don't like Mozart symphonies, there's a new recording that I think will change your mind, or at least somebody's mind: Mozart's symphonies # 38 ("Prague") and # 41 ("Jupiter") with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by René Jacobs.
I hope to write more about this later, but Jacobs, the countertenor-turned-conductor, has somewhat unexpectedly become today's classical recording superstar. In a time when most record companies won't record big operas and choral works, he makes at least two recordings every year, and they're always great. Last year it was Mozart's La Clemenza Di Tito and Handel's Messiah. Later this year he's doing Mozart's Don Giovanni, and an article in a Philadelphia newspaper indicated that his next recording will be Rossini's Tancredi. (Don't laugh: Rossini is one of the few 19th-century composers whose music sounds really terrific on period instruments.) Because he started as a singer, he mostly conducts and records opera, but two years ago he started getting into symphonic works; he recorded a disc of Haydn symphonies, and now there's this recording of Mozart's best symphony, 38, and his last symphony, 41.
"Extroverted" is the word for Jacobs' conducting: he's not out for subtlety, or for gracefulness. As befits an opera conductor, he treats a symphony like a mini-opera, and is always trying to bring out the dramatic contrasts and sudden surprises. The opening of # 41 has a brusque, loud three-note motif followed by a quieter, less gruff phrase for the strings. This music is all about contrasts -- the contrast between the first phrase and the second -- but many conductors, trying to make Mozart sound as charming and pretty as possible, try to smooth over the contrasts, play them down. Jacobs plays them up, making the opening phrase so big that it almost knocks you out of your seat, and then slowing down as much as he reasonably can for the answering phrase. Mozart writes a symphony as if it's an opera with different sections of the orchestra; that's what Jacobs brings out. Warning: if you don't like conductors who over-emphasize the drums, prepare to be really irritated by this disc, because Jacobs lets the timpani player blast away whenever he enters. I love that, though; Mozart didn't always write a timpani part in symphonies, so when he did, I assume he wanted it to make enough noise so the audience would notice it.
The other thing I like about Jacobs' work as a symphonic conductor is his approach to repeats. Like many conductors today, he takes all the repeats (Mozart asked for the conductor to repeat the exposition and also the second half of the movement; traditionally conductors took only the first repeat, or even none at all). But while he and the orchestra mostly have no choice but to play and phrase the repeats the same as the first time around, they occasionally take the opportunity to add in little touches we didn't hear before -- so in the finale of 38, the fiddles add little unobtrusive ornaments when they play the exposition repeat, to make the music funnier the second time around. You can't embellish a symphonic repeat the way you embellish a repeat in opera, but I like that the conductor and orchestra are doing what they can to make sure a repeat isn't boring.
The sound is good, and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is probably the best period-instrument group in Germany (and most of the best period-instrument orchestras have, for some reason, been German or Austrian). Their first-chair soloists actually formed a string quartet back in the early '90s and made one of the best-ever recordings of Haydn Quartets; I wish Harmonia Mundi, which records this orchestra almost exclusively, would make some recordings with the quartet.
Addendum: If you want a Mozart symphony recording with a similar spirit but on modern instruments, I see that there's been a reissue of a 1959 recording of # 38, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Maag. Maag was a young Swiss conductor -- who probably got to record for Decca because the guy who financed its classical recordings, Maurice Rosengarten, was Swiss -- and while he never hit it big, he deserved to. His 1950s Mozart recordings were very unusual in a time when most conductors handled Mozart symphonies like the veteran Bruno Walter: Walter made the symphonies sound pretty, charming, warm and insignificant, and his recordings were considered the alpha and omega of Mozart style. Maag's version of # 38 is fast, nervous and exciting, with loud brass and drums and a general feeling that this music is violent and brilliant rather than charming. That's the way I feel about Mozart, and Haydn for that matter, so that's the kind of performance I prefer.