Monday, January 15, 2007


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.


Chuck said...

Love your blog, but do I detect a faint dissing of Amadeus (the man, not the mediocre movie) every now and then?

To each his own, I guess; personally I can't see life without at least a weekly mood-booster shot of the "Haffner Symphony".

Speaking of which, perhaps you can help me understand something that's been a baffler for years: I keep reading that Mozart, squeezed by a deadline, tarted up the "Haffner Serenade" a mite and pawned it off as his 35th symphony. But I just don't hear that many similarities between the two works (okay, NO similarities, when you come right down to it.)

Could you possibly point out which movement of the symphony was extracted from what movement of the serenade -- and how the music might've been changed to throw off so admittedly non-expert an ear as mine?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Love your blog, but do I detect a faint dissing of Amadeus (the man, not the mediocre movie) every now and then?

Wow -- I sure don't think so. I admit I do dis the way Mozart's music is often performed (charming, graceful, lightweight). But I'm a huge, huge fan of his late symphonies, operas, concertos, serenades and so on.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Re the "Haffner" serenade: I don't think there is any actual connection between the serenade and the symphony, except for the nickname.

Mozart sometimes adapted his serenades for symphony orchestras and called them "symphonies," and I think the Haffner serenade was one of those. So that's the "symphony" that's based on the serenade, but not the actual Haffner symphony.

Confusing, isn't it?

Chuck said...

Rereading some of your previous posts on Mozart, I think I see where you're coming from -- you're not that impressed by little Wolfgang the prodigy, believing he had to sweat and strain as much as any ordinary mortal before he became truly great.

Can't argue with that, and it's a welcome tonic to Amadeus's puerile notion of a transcendent soul transcribing music dictated by God.

And many thanks for the clarification re the Haffner(s) -- glad to see it wasn't just me...

Thomas D said...

I heard the first movement of this 'Jupiter' on the radio this morning and agree on one thing - it's Mozart for those who dislike Mozart.

What do you, or does anyone, have against subtlety, grace, charm, elegance... ?

Because Mozart DOES have all of these qualities, and to deny them seems to me a diminshment of his creations.

Just like you feel that to deny Mozart brilliance and force is a diminishment...

(But 'violence' - what's desirable about that?)

Quite a few pieces of Mozart are even pretty! Quelle horreur!

I also think it is extremely misleading to reduce Mozart interpretations to one dimension with the 'bad old guys' like Walter at one end and Jacobs at the other.

Why can't one have both elegance, subtlety, brilliance AND forcefulness? For example Charles Mackerras, Erich Kleiber, Anthony Collins, Trever Pinnock, and half a dozen others one could mention.

Check out what a 'Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster' is: for my money, Jacobs gives us a plain brick without the gold, let alone slices of lemon...

On the timpani - of course they have to be heard. It doesn't follow that they must dominate every other instrument.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Well, I certainly like the conductors you mention (though I'm not as wild about Kleiber's Figaro as some, and much as I like Mackerras's conducting of Mozart, I think his Mozart symphonies are a bit disappointing). I would add Klemperer, whose Mozart is admittedly also kind of nasty, and of course as I said above, I think Peter Maag's Mozart is an all-time classic.