This stunning new record of Mozart symphonies conducted by René Jacobs displays his usual and entirely warranted lack of concern for what the critics might say. The truth is, however, that while five years ago critics might have roundly condemned this new release, Jacobs and his large body of work have now become an object of adoration to those in the know. Jacobs has clearly moved into the company of Harnoncourt, Brüggen and Hogwood, and in some ways surpassed them in stretching the window of historicity, with a clearly personal approach, light on the touch yet packing plenty of punch.
Conducting the superb original-instrument Freiburger Barockorchester, Jacobs uses breakneck speeds (check out the slow movement of the “Jupiter”), vivid instrumental colors (with lots of exhilarating kettledrum punctuation) and devil-may-care dynamic contrasts to make Mozart’s “Prague” and Jupiter” symphonies come alive with rare force and beauty. I guarantee that, when you invite your friends over and put this recording on, they will stop whatever they are doing and listen until the entire CD is over. And if Mozart didn’t have this in mind when he wrote the music, he certainly wouldn’t have minded being souped up in this way.
By coincidence, Berlin Classics has just released a 7-CD set of performances of the “last symphonies” of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky with the great German conductor Hermann Abendroth (1883-1956) leading the radio orchestras in Leipzig and Berlin between 1949 and 1956 (Hermann Abendroth: The Last Symphonies – Berlin Classics 0184032BC). Not only are the performances what you might expect, and more, from this contemporary of Furtwängler, who shared his colleague’s furious intensity and and volcanic passion, in the two Mozart symphonies they offer a fascinating contrast with Jacobs.
Although Abendroth is slow and even ponderous in the slow movements and some of the fast movements, he is occasionally either actually very fast, as in the Finale of the Prague, or seemingly very fast (a very different thing from actually being very fast) as in the Finale of the Jupiter. Partially it is a matter of relative speed within both a specific movement and the framework of the entire symphony, partially it is a matter of the cumulative impact of the large mass of Abendroth’s orchestras as they begin generating tremendous speed. To choose between the very old school and the very new one is as much a philosophical discussion as a musical one. As much as I have become addicted to the work of Jacobs, for me personally there is something more emotionally profound about the conventional approach when it is done, as it is by Abendroth, at such an extremely high level (something Furtwängler never achieved in Mozart).
There is no doubt that Jacobs’ new CD is a “must have” recording, but I also strongly suggest that comparing and contrasting with Abendroth will leave you not only intellectually wiser but musically happier. And, if you don’t know Abendroth, and need a refreshing course in the mainstream German symphony repertoire of the 19th century, his performances are a magnificent place to start.
Recorded in Innsbruck, the sound on Jacobs performances is entirely natural yet has an almost super-realistic aura about it. Quite magnificent! Unfortunately, there are no liner notes from Jacobs himself, who is always the most helpful and provocative of writers. The sound on the Abendroth recordings is always serviceable and, at times, remarkably smooth and powerful (like Furtwángler, Abendroth’s musical intentions overcomes most sonic obstacles). Dirk Stöve’s articulate, well-translated essay is exceptionally illuminating and clear.
– Laurence Vittes