MOZART: Symphony No. 38 “Prague;” Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” – Freiburger Barockorchester/ Rene Jacobs, conductor – Harmonia mundi

by | Feb 20, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

MOZART: Symphony No. 38 “Prague;” Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” – Freiburger Barockorchester/ Rene Jacobs, conductor – Harmonia mundi HMC 901958, 68:41 ***(*):

I must admit right up front that a large part of this review is based on personal preference. While I am always careful to give period instrument recordings their due, in the end one must decide how much thin violin tone and astringent winds one can take and still consider the product “musical”. The period forces of the world have made great strides over the years—one has only to listen to some of Christopher Hogwood’s early recordings, or Nicholas Harnoncourt’s to see how scratchy and disjointed things were at the beginning. Period philosophy has also undergone a sea change in the last 10-15 years. While early recordings of the two symphonies under consideration here would have been deadpan straight in terms of any marked dynamics or tempo markings, often resulting in interesting but sterile performances, today the proponents of the movement seem very inclined to, well, “interpret” things a little more than they used to. This to me is a sign of musical and philosophical maturity, for the notion that Mozart, Bach, or even Monteverdi didn’t interpret is to emotionally neuter these gentlemen and render their music as automaton-flavored instead of being from the heart.

In this latest release by the increasingly popular and successful Rene Jacobs, we get some of the bad and some of the good. Jacobs is one of the ones who are in favor of making the music more presentable by putting in dynamics, rubato, tempo adjustments, all the things that “normal” conductors do when preparing a score for realization. Witness his recent Messiah recording, chuck full of all sorts of interpolations and assumptions. His Mozart is the same—ritards where you don’t expect them (and certainly aren’t written), differing dynamic contrasts, unusual phrasing—many things that make you sit up and notice, and be glad of, even though again (as in Messiah) many of his choices seem arbitrary and willful. But nonetheless, here is a conductor with something to say in these tried and true pieces, and we are better off for it.

But what in the end irks me is the deliberate and flagrant choice of emphasizing rhythmical precision and sheer aggressiveness over warmth and sympathetic phrasing. The timpani in this recording are extraordinarily militant and forceful, and after a while it gets to you. The strings are so thin and anemic in places that important passages are covered up by the percussion noise and percussive noise of the winds and brass. Now, I am pleased that more period conductors are emphasizing the role of the winds, often underplayed according to what we know of suggested orchestral makeup of the period, but the answer is surely not to reduce the strings but to enlarge the whole orchestra! Why play what Mozart was forced to use in his lifetime instead of using what he ideally desired (and presumably wrote with that in mind)? One cannot listen to the slow movement of the Jupiter with this sort of weak, vibrato-less, characterless string sound. It just doesn’t work.

Likewise the tempos—I have never heard the Prague taken with such breakneck alacrity and utter disregard for good musical phrasing. Did Mozart really want a purely perpetuum mobile in the last movement? Did he want his minuets to sound like scherzos? For those who answer “yes” to these questions, this is the recording for you. It is played brilliantly and with great excitement, but its fierceness comes at a price, a price that many will not be willing to accept. I listened to the classic accounts of the Prague by Joseph Krips and the Jupiter by Leonard Bernstein, and the comparisons were startling. Jacobs is a conductor with much to say, but the period performance idea of injecting everything with adrenaline is a bit of doctrinaire detritus that must be jettisoned before the movement settles down and makes lasting contributions to the art.

Harmonia Mundi gives all involved spectacular sound for standard CD format. This is a supplement, not a primary recording for most collectors.

— Steven Ritter

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