Mozart Symph 39 40 41 Blomstedt BR Klassik 900196

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphonies 39 KV 543, 40 KV 550 & 41 KV 551 ‘Jupiter’
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live, 17-21 December 2019, Philharmonie im Gasteig (39); 31 January – 1 February 2013, (40); 18-22 December 2017, Herkulessaal der Residenz (41), Munich.
BR Klassik 900196 [2 CDs: 103]

These live composite recordings of Mozart’s three last symphonies were made in Munich between 2013 and 2019 by the now “world’s oldest conductor”, the American-born Swede Herbert Blomstedt. The last two symphonies were previously released on a single CD (review) only five years ago but now No 39 has been added; this might be rather annoying for anyone who bought the original CD but makes an attractive triple package.

Perhaps somewhat overlooked – or at least taken for granted – over much of his long career, Blomstedt has now reached that Grand Old Man status whereby his wisdom and quiet authority are now universally acknowledged, a respect cemented by the recent re-release of his Bruckner symphony cycle (only nos. 1-9, not all eleven) on the Accentus label (review). He has always conducted Mozart in Leipzig, Dresden and Sweden and clearly has an attachment to this music despite being most renowned for his conducting of the German and Austrian Romantic repertoire,

There is no shortage of recordings of ‘Big Band’ Mozart symphonies by ‘Big Beast’ conductors; in my own collection, I favour versions in that style by such as Karajan, Suitner and Szell, but they do not take the repeats and this new compilation immediately promises excellence of sound and performance in a convenient package, especially as the three symphonies are interrelated and unified by theme and date of composition.

There is certainly nothing plush or over-padded about the slow introduction to KV 543, with its sharp, stabbing dissonances; it melts gratefully into a flowing melody stiffened by hard timpani strokes which play such a major role in setting the tone of this most fluid, varied and energised of opening movements. In the Andante, Blomstedt, like Suitner, is a little too swift and tripping for my taste compared with Karajan’s more Romantic indulgence and I would also like to hear a little more heft on the bow-strokes in the agitated central section, but Blomstedt is applying a slightly lighter touch all round and many listeners will prefer that. The Minuet is played with a bluff cheerfulness and warmth of tone which dispels all the preceding shadows and sets a playful mood for the scurrying, quicksilver finale; it is so swift and short that taking the repeat, as Blomstedt does here and throughout the three symphonies, hardly seems excessive. Again, the sonority of the timpani underpins the solidity and accuracy of the playing and enhances its joie de vivre as Mozart winds his way through a bewildering succession of keys to the abrupt “joke” ending – and Blomstedt’s sparkle makes Karajan seem a little ponderous.

The depth of sound these recordings enjoy is especially apt for showcasing the dark, G minor hues of No. 40 and there is a nice airiness to Blomstedt’s delivery of the Andante which slips easily between melancholy and insouciance. The limping dance motif remains intriguingly ambivalent throughout, sometimes threatening tragedy, then briefly proffering a wry, almost comical consolation. That ambiguity of mood is chased away by the grim little minuet; only in the Trio is there a suggestion of rustic charm. Blomstedt is especially good at bringing out the clarity and the juxtaposition of the lines in Mozart’s complex counterpoint and the beauty of the instrumental playing. The restless, questing finale is masterfully controlled, especially the disturbing central section where tonality breaks down; Blomstedt pushes hard, emphasising the anarchy and daring of Mozart’s invention and once again the richness of the bass line adds menace.

The opening movement of the ‘Jupiter’ is taken very swiftly, perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that pacing matters if repeats are included; the playing is virtuosic, pointed and exceptionally homogeneous, especially for a live performance, bringing out something of a manic, almost superhuman, quality in the music. The deceptively simple Andante cantabile, with its superficially uncomplicated themes – like so much of the music in these symphonies – is shot through with a dusky, keening timbre combined with a sparing application of vibrato, which counteracts any sentimentality, while the frequent shifts in harmony and key constantly disturb the equilibrium of the listener. The menuetto offers a vision of a more untroubled world – a rural idyll – but even there, hints are dropped of the glorious turmoil which will ensue in the finale. The four-note motif upon which everything, including the crazily inventive fugato passages, is built, is first gently intoned; Blomstedt is careful not to give out too much too soon but cunningly gauges the release over the full twelve minutes of this extraordinarily complex music, so often redolent of the drama of Don Giovanni.

There is virtually nothing about these recordings to indicate that they are live and not studio-made; indeed, the warmth and balance of the sound constitute major assets.

Ralph Moore

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