Mozart: Symphonies Nos 39-41

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COMPOSERS: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
LABELS: Sony Classical
ALBUM TITLE: Mozart: Symphonies Nos 39-41
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 39-41
PERFORMER: Concentus Musicus Wien/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt

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For all the miraculous variety of Mozart’s last three Symphonies, Nikolaus Harnoncourt views them as forming a single whole – an ‘instrumental oratorium’, as he calls it (the title is splashed across the CD booklet cover). Perhaps it’s the blunt ending of Symphony No. 39 that prompts him to make an attacca into the start of No. 40, but that’s one of the less quirky features of these performances. Now in his mid-80s, Harnoncourt is as much of a maverick as ever.

One of the conductor’s most irksome mannerisms is a liking for prolonging Mozart’s rests. The start of the central section in the finale of the Symphony No. 40 is one of the most disjunct passages Mozart ever wrote, but Harnoncourt – no doubt wanting to render the music still more disorientating – arbitrarily extends the silences between its jagged phrases by a bar or so.

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Guaranteed to make you sit up even more is the Jupiter Symphony’s opening subject, where the rest between the assertive initial fanfare and its quiet answering phrase is again vastly extended each time, as though the two were entirely unrelated. This isn’t a question of interpretative freedom: it’s tantamount to rewriting the music. Milder Harnoncourt eccentricities include a lightning-quick account of the Minuet in Symphony No. 40, followed by a half-speed trio; and a relaxed account of the same work’s agitated finale. The recorded sound is overly reverberant, with the violins all too often drowned out altogether. All in all, Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn) make for a safer recommendation. Misha Donat