Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART. Les trois dernières symphonies (K. 543, 550, 551)—Ensemble Appassionato, dir. Mathieu Herzog—naïve V5457—86:00, *****:
Mathieu Herzog’s Ensemble Appassionato makes their debut solo recording with the last three symphonies of Mozart: nos. 39 in E-flat, 40 in G minor, and 41 in C, “Jupiter.” The orchestra already has experience performing in festivals across France, and is known for playing an eclectic survey of music. Through this recording, the liner notes indicate Herzog’s desire to reconcile many different interpretive traditions through an effort to appeal to the modern listener (on modern instruments). Their size appears to be rooted in historical context (18 violins, six violas, four cellos), which is large enough to take advantage of the contrasts in Mozart’s writing.
Having never heard Appassionato, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And nothing in the packaging of this release can adequately prepare you for what’s contained, etched if you will, across the two CDs.
And the novelty of these performances may well be the reason to seek out these new recordings—most will already have at least a few performances of Mozart’s last symphonies. My own journey with Mozart traversed the historically-informed route with John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, and eventually, Trevor Pinnock. More recently I’ve enjoyed performances led by Renée Jacobs and Marc Minkowski. If I were to follow any trend with these historically-informed orchestras, playing historically-accurate instruments, the evolution of performance has embraced faster tempi and tighter control of the ensemble.
And the comparison here with Ensemble Appassionato is worthy because in many ways their sound is not terribly different from a historic instrument ensemble. There is a rawness to their sound. But above all else, they approach these works as athletic challenges almost to the point of shock. These musicians can play fast.
The opening of the E-flat symphony, K. 543, is dominated by the sharp attack of the timpani. This clean sound is mirrored in the tight cohesion from the rest of the orchestra. To our delight, the strings are especially tight in their articulation and there is no smearing of sound that comes from larger, mainstream orchestras. The pace of the Allegro is just a hair shy of fleeting and the dynamic contrasts are quite wide.
In fact, my audio system consists of using Roon software that analyzes the dynamic range of each of my recordings. The software in this case rated this recording with a dynamic range of “18,” which is significantly wider than most of my classical recordings. The recording is also available in higher resolution through streaming services.
In the Menuetto movement of the same symphony, the same big sound that opened the work is present and I find the result to be far more exciting than other performances that relegate the menuet-trio as a sleepy movement. The clarinet and flute are clearly heard with excellent dynamic shaping, not feeling lost somewhere in the back of the ensemble.
The finale is fast, but the tempo works. It clocks in at 5:37, noticeably faster than many recordings, but closest to the 2013 recording directed by J. Van Immerseel with Anima Eterna orchestra from Brugge. A side-by-side comparison demonstrates for me the superiority of the Herzog recording—with a closer, cleaner sound, and a tighter control of the ensemble.
With speed established as part of their M.O., the opening of Symphony no. 40 might be a surprise: it’s far more gentle and played more slowly than I expected. This ends up being a pleasant type of surprise. Rarely have I heard the opening and resulting development of the movement played so dynamically. And just as that tension builds, we start the sonata-allegro cycle again with restraint. This interpretation made me smile. Most noticeable too is the treat of clarity we enjoy in being able to hear from every section of the ensemble. I have only enjoyed this, personally, from the singular position on the podium.
Herzog pulls us in through a very slow performance of no. 40’s Andante. We all know the piece, for sure, and hearing it this slow is, for me, a novel way of building anticipation for what follows. The Menuetto is all Sturm-und-Drang. The finale loses none of this energy. I find the interpretation fresh. God bless those violins that play with remarkable, solid intensity. The development section, where Mozart keeps passing the theme to different parts of the orchestra, is sublime.
I smiled when the timpani returned in the opening of no. 41. I don’t think a timpani player, at least in Mozart, as ever made me smile so. Hats off to Rodolphe Théry and his dry sticks. The hard attack of the drums warms my historically-informed-minded self. Yet all the energy and joy that is contained within the opening movement of the Jupiter symphony is deflated for me in the Andante cantabile movement. The playing is beautiful but it feels too slow for me. And I already get why. I know what’s in store: what follows will be brisk.
The menuet-trio movement clocks in at 3:21. Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre take almost eight minutes. Minkowski takes twenty-one minutes with the finale. Herzog rushes through at 7:31.
Hearing the Finale this fast is interesting. Can the players possibly keep up at this tempo? I think they do but I am not sure any of this speeding is in the interest of the music. If I heard it within a live performance, I think my jaw would have dropped, on edge to see if they could maintain this pace through to the end. What’s lost in some spots is the tight clarity in the strings. This is not to say they get sloppy; but there are limits to the physics of what can be achieved at such a fast tempo.
I would have taken the Andante faster, the Finale, slower. But in this recording, Herzog is in charge and what he achieves is really breathtaking. Overall I think this recording is a breath of fresh air and is most certainly worth a listen. Whether it becomes a new standard I am unsure; but what is achieved here in sonic clarity, through creative interpretation, and through extremes in tempo are enlightening. It forces us to hear Mozart in new ways, perhaps akin to exchanging our ears for someone else’s.
I applaud, yes, another recording of Mozart’s late symphonies. Even with modern instruments. Bravo!