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Sir Charles Mackerras returns to conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a definitive performance of five of Mozart's finest symphonies. This recording was named a Finalist at the 2010 Gramophone Awards and was acclaimed across the media.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
In the five symphonies recorded here Mozart was responding to different circumstances: local conditions in Salzburg; a public concert in Paris; the opportunity to adapt a commission, originally conceived for a Salzburg audience, for the Viennese public; and the necessity to dash off a symphony for a hastily arranged concert in Linz. Four of these works were later revised by the composer, with changes ranging from the retouching of details in K425, through the addition of extra instruments in K318 and K385, to the substitution of the entire central movement of K297. The exception is K201, which may not have been revived by the composer in Vienna, but whose jewel-like perfection must at any rate have been as apparent to Mozart then as it is to us now.
Symphony No 29 in A major K201 (186a), written in Salzburg and dated 6 April 1774, is one of Mozart’s first masterpieces. He had written two earlier symphonies in A major (K114 from December 1771 and K134 from August 1772), both of which have charm and finesse; but the present work’s formal ambition, expressive range and technical sophistication place it in an altogether different class. Just a few months after his eighteenth birthday, Mozart was fully in control of his craft and—despite his limited orchestral canvas of two oboes, two horns and strings—he wrote with an unmistakably individual voice, espousing the musical values that were to underpin his later symphonies.
Unlike most of Mozart’s earlier symphonies, the weight of the musical argument is distributed evenly through all four movements here. The opening Allegro moderato is remarkable for the confident balance of its broad musical paragraphs and for the subtle connections between its many themes; crucially, Mozart did not flaunt his compositional technique until the coda, where the main theme is contrapuntally amplified. The following Andante is full of lyrical riches. Its second theme, in particular, must have lodged in the composer’s mind, since he reworked it in the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola five years later. Above all, this movement is distinguished by its delicacy and the subtle modulation of its expressive effects: its polished surface is punctuated by numerous little hesitations, textural and registral fissures, and instrumental exclamations. It too has a climactic coda, with the wind instruments introducing an apotheosis of the main theme. Each reprise of the sprightly Menuetto is punctuated by a fragment of a horn call, known in the eighteenth century as a ‘queste’ and used to signal the gathering of hunt. This musical topic provides the perfect introduction to the finale (Allegro con spirito): a rollicking chasse in which Mozart showed his audience that learned devices and high spirits are far from incompatible. Once again, the movement is crowned by a coda, whose unforgettable horn calls were echoed some forty years later at the same point in the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Symphony No 31 in D major K297 (300a) ‘Paris’ was composed in response to a commission from Joseph Legros, the director of the Concerts Spirituels, during the early summer of 1778 while Mozart was in Paris with his ailing mother. Writing in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death on 3 July, the composer gave his father an account of the Symphony’s first performance, which had taken place on 18 June:
‘Right in the middle of the first Allegro was a passage that I knew they would like; the whole audience was thrilled by it and there was a tremendous burst of applause; but as I knew when I wrote it what kind of an effect it would produce, I repeated it again at the end—when there were shouts of ‘Da capo’. The Andante also found favour, but particularly the last Allegro because, having observed that here all final as well as first allegros begin with all the instruments playing together and generally unison, I began mine with the two violins only, piano for the first eight bars—followed instantly by a forte; the audience, as I expected, said ‘Sh!’ at the soft beginning, and then, as soon as they heard the forte that followed, immediately began to clap their hands.’
Leaving aside the implicit psychodrama that underpins this text, it tells us much about Mozart’s compositional strategy. His letter talks about calculated effects, indeed the music places a continual emphasis on dramatic effect and—with the involvement of a large orchestra—sensuous colour at the expense of his usual motivic and harmonic complexity. Also noteworthy is the way Mozart skips over the audience’s reaction to the Andante. In a later letter to his father (9 July 1778) he recounted how the original slow movement had not found favour with Legros, so Mozart had written a substitute Andante for the Symphony’s second performance on 15 August: ‘Each is good in its own way, for each has a different character. But the new one pleases me even more’. Both Andantes survive: a placid, elegant 58-bar movement in triple time (found in the Parisian first edition), and a more dramatic 98-bar compound duple movement in the autograph manuscript. But which is the original and which the substitute? By the middle of the twentieth century a consensus emerged among Mozart scholars that the 6/8 movement was the original. But in the 1980s Alan Tyson’s analysis of the sources overturned this view: it seems likely that the 3/4 movement was written first. Either way, they are equally valid alternatives (as Mozart himself said), and each has considerable attractions. Both are presented on this recording.
Symphony No 32 in G major K318 was written in Salzburg the year after Mozart returned from Paris, and dated 26 April 1779. It is formally unlike any of Mozart’s other later symphonies, in that its three brief movements run into each other without a break. This form was common in Italian opera overtures of the period. Mozart himself had previously used it in his Symphony in D K141a (1772) by adding a third movement to the overture of Il sogno di Scipione, and in the Symphony in E flat K184 (1773) which may also have had a theatrical origin. He later drew on the archetype in the overture to Die Entführung and initially conceived the overture to Figaro in this form before replacing the central Andante with the familiar bridge passage. All this has led some sources to describe K318 as an overture, though Mozart didn’t give it any generic designation on the autograph manuscript and there is no evidence that he intended it to preface a drama. Nevertheless, the Symphony has a distinctly operatic buzz and panache, from its arresting opening, through the long orchestral crescendos in its outer Allegro spiritoso sections, to the gentle plaint of its aria-like Andante.
In its details, though, this Symphony is quite unlike its overture-like predecessors. Its three ‘movements’ are really one movement: a fully-worked out sonata-form Allegro whose development section is punctuated by the Andante. Furthermore, the Allegro’s themes are reprised in reverse order in the final section, giving the whole Symphony a symmetrical dimension that cuts across some of its goal-oriented musical processes. The level of technical finish is superb, and it is packed with quirky touches. Take, for example, the phatic unisono bar that prefaces the delicate second subject, or the contrapuntal layering of motives from the first and second subjects at the climax of the exposition, or the subtle variations in orchestration that colour the refrain of the Andante at each of its appearances. This Symphony may be short, but its humour and invention place it in that special sub-category that includes Beethoven’s Eighth and Shostakovich’s Ninth.
Unusually, Mozart’s orchestration calls for four horns. In its Salzburg version the Symphony did not include trumpets, though Mozart seems to have added them for a performance in Vienna during the early 1780s. Thus we have a unique example in Mozart’s oeuvre of natural brass instruments being used in three different keys at once. Some scores of the work include a timpani part which, although not by Mozart, is used in this recording.
Mozart had been living in Vienna for almost a year and a half when in July 1782 his father wrote to him from Salzburg, asking for a new symphony to celebrate the ennoblement of his friend Sigmund Haffner, which was due to take place at the end of the month. Although he was busy arranging Die Entführung for wind instruments, Mozart managed over the following three weeks to compose his Symphony No 35 in D major K385 ‘Haffner’ and to dispatch the score to Salzburg for its premiere. By December of that year Mozart was asking his father to give the score back, because he wanted to perform it at one of his Lenten academies in Vienna. The score having been returned, he wrote to his father on 15 February 1783: ‘My new Haffner symphony has positively amazed me, for I had forgotten every single note of it. It must surely produce a good effect’. Mozart now took the opportunity to revise the score, cancelling the first movement’s repeats and touching up the orchestration by adding flutes and clarinets to the outer movements. In this form the Symphony was performed at the Burgtheater on 23 March 1783 in the presence of Emperor Joseph II.
It is easy to see why Mozart chose this work to frame his concert. (It began with the first three movements and ended with the Finale.) Like the opening of the ‘Paris’ Symphony, the vertiginous leaps and plunges at the start of the Allegro con spirito were surely designed to produce an effect on the amateurs in the audience. But in this work Mozart also kept an eye on the connoisseurs, especially those who, like the Emperor, admired formal counterpoint: the jagged contour of the opening recurs throughout the first movement, clothed in an ever-changing array of ingenious contrapuntal decorations. Because of this, the movement lacks the expected lyrical second subject, but Mozart cannot be accused of skimping on expressive variety.
The Salzburg serenade tradition, to which this Symphony is related, is most apparent in the middle two movements. The brief Andante is pure high-class entertainment music, and the Minuet and Trio have the sort of rhythmic clarity that enabled them actually to accompany the dance, a quality shared only with the third movement of K543 among Mozart’s later symphonies. The ‘Haffner’ ends with the wittiest of Mozart’s symphonic rondos. Lest it be thought his achievement is light here, one need only compare it with the finales of the second symphonies by both Beethoven and Brahms to see the musical intellects it has impressed.
In the summer of 1783 Mozart and his new wife paid a visit to the composer’s family and friends in Salzburg. Their return journey to Vienna took them through Linz, from where, on 31 October 1783, Mozart wrote to his father: ‘On Tuesday 4 November I am giving a concert in the theatre here and, as I haven’t got a single symphony with me, I am writing a new one at break-neck speed’. The autograph manuscript of Symphony No 36 in C major K425 ‘Linz’ is lost, so we cannot tell how the pressure of time affected its composition; but the music itself shows no apparent signs of haste. The opening movement is Mozart’s grandest symphonic conception to date, and the first to begin with an Adagio introduction. This establishes the character of the work with the authoritative language of the French overture, but it is undercut by an unexpected turn towards the subdominant in the third bar (the first of many unusual emphases on the subdominant throughout the Symphony). As the introduction unfolds it becomes increasingly chromatic, before settling—or, rather, un-settling—on the dominant of C minor. The following Allegro spiritoso has a breadth and power that anticipates those magnificent C major works of the next few years: the Piano Concertos K467 and K503, and the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. And, like them, the brilliance of orchestral sound is put into perspective by carefully paced hesitations and turns to the minor, above all in the middle of the exposition’s cadential theme.
The Andante is in the style of a siciliana, and at first it inhabits the same pastoral idyllic mode as the fragmentary ‘Et incarnatus est’ of the C minor Mass K427 and Susanna’s ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ in Act 4 of Figaro. But 22 bars into the exposition the music takes a sinister turn with the introduction of trumpets and drums and the minor mode. The resulting sense of disquiet is not dispelled by an unaccompanied bass theme in the development section. Again the minor mode dominates, and when the violins momentarily take the music towards the relative major, Mozart pulls it back with an ascending chromatic progression that he later used to express Pamina’s suicidal despair in ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s’ (Act 2 of Die Zauberflöte). Thus the peace that is restored at the end of the movement seems more like a proto-Beethovenian victory than the natural order of a pastoral world.
If Mozart was forced to cut compositional corners by the peculiar circumstances of early November 1783, then he may have learned a useful lesson in musical economy and the ways in which simplicity can give rise to powerful effect. Take the Menuetto, for example: its textures are plain and its pitch shapes seem rather neutral—largely triads, repeated notes and cadences; but Mozart plays clever rhythmic games with his repeated-note figures, setting up a teasing ambiguity between the underlying 3/4 metre, an implied hemiola (that is, a 3/2 pattern) and an echo of the characteristic march rhythm (in 4/4) from the first movement. A different type of economy is evident in the finale. Here Mozart takes a little off-beat figure which appeared in just three bars of his B flat major Piano Sonata K333 (also written in the Autumn of 1783) and expands it into a forty-four-bar section in bars 72–116. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way Mozart constructs the climax of the whole work. Ever since the first movement various points of tension in the musical argument have been marked by the violins climbing to a high E. Now, in the last 14 bars of the finale, all the earlier tensions are resolved with a triumphant arrival on this same E. It was in such simple devices that Mozart was later to forge his most mature compositional style.
Timothy Jones © 2009