INKPOT#49 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MOZART Symphonies Nos.40 & 41. Bruggen (Philips)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K.550
Symphony No.41 in C, K.551 “Jupiter” Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
on period instruments
directed by Frans Brggen
PHILIPS Classics 454 136-2
by Chia Han-Leon
Someone once wrote that it is better for the 41st Symphony to be called “Jupiter” than to have a “mathematical dissertation” (ie. “No.41 in C major, K.551”) for a name. Bravo! Point is: like Beethoven’s “Emperor”, the “Jupiter” was not named by the composer.
As readers may know, Mozart (right) in a burst of superhuman creativity composed Symphonies Nos. 39-41 in the summer of 1788. He completed No.39 on June 26, No.40 on July 25, and (gasp) No.41 is dated August 10. For this fertility of notes was Mozart given a place in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most prolific composer known to man.
The Symphony No.40 in G minor is famous for its combined balance of solemn, understated angst encapsulated with carefully channeled energy. The OEC’s 1985 reading is distinguished by taut discipline and surprising colour: listen to the bird-like cries and tentative musings of the woodwind, in particular the surprisingly mellow period clarinets (Mozart’s favourite instrument, which he later revised into the score). The strings chug away purposefully at every line of this grand score. Where some conductors emphasise the tragic element, period performance director Brüggen focuses on something closer to excitement.
The beautiful Andante is both pensive, sweet but sometimes also sighing with resignation. This ten-minute movement is superbly sustained by the OEC, elegantly laid out in an atmosphere of serene ease. They skip lightly and effectively into the Menuetto with virtually no break. This is a finely crafted reading that allows the music to breathe with grace, as in the relaxed horn serenades of the Allegretto, while reminding us of the admonishing disciplinarian of the outer Menuets. In the Finale, the interchanges between the various instrumental groups are exploited effectively. The unified performance, not overtly emotional, astutely maintains both sorrow and zest.
Since the “Jupiter” was not titled as such by Mozart, it is a little ridiculous to talk about the, er, “Classical Greek” qualities of the Symphony No.41 in C major. But I am a literature student, so who cares…
Let’s get this straight: I like my “Jupiter” strong and lightning sharp, lithe and not too heavy of tone, but always preserving a kind of Jovian energy and strength which I associate with Beethoven. This 1987 performance by Frans Brüggen is like that, featuring (sometimes too much, perhaps) his characteristic strong accenting.
This comes across directly in the opening movement, the Allegro vivace, with its propulsive TEE! TUM-ta’TAA! rhythmic motif. If you think Mozart is just a lyric-spinning sissy (which many people do), wait till you hear this “Jupiter”. The internal clarity of instrumental lines not only show the almost motor-like drive in the work, but also its finely-crafted, but steel-strong classical architecture. On one hand, the OEC startles with its booming timpani, while the “old world sweetness” of the authentic woodwind, with their characteristic woody tones, breathes airs that would easily grace one of Louis’ gardens at the Versailles .
The elegantly noble Andante cantabile is another masterpiece. Without forgetting the “cantabile”, Bruggen takes it philosophically, like some Scholar of Reason out for a countryside walk. I imagine French dancers tumbling in shock at the symphonic magnificence of the Menuetto as delivered here. Like the first movement, the last is a powerhouse of energy wrought with discipline.
The OEC are no-holds-barred with this delightfully tumultous exercise in contrapuntal majesty. The rasping and pounding produced by this orchestra will probably irritate many anti-period-instrument listeners, but I wasn’t in it merely for lyricism. I revelled at their sheer exuberance, demonstrating the enormous power that Mozart was capable of, be it the spiralling violin passages, the valiant flights of the flutes or the Jovian storm of trumpet thunderbolts in the affirming conclusion. So did the audience, with their instant applause and cheers – this is a ‘live’ recording, but so quiet I didn’t realise it for ages.
Right: Detail from a portrait of Mozart wearing the insignia of the Knight of the Golden Spur, conferred on him in 1770. He looks pretty stressed-out already.
As far as orchestral tone is concerned, the period violins will always be, as it is here, thinner than their modern counterparts. This CD is not for those of you who want your Mozart full-toned and sweet, but for those wanting to listen to the driving energy which the likes of Beethoven and Mendelssohn modelled their early symphonies on. Period-instrument performers are no strangers to displaying emotion, and this is balanced by the sharp clarity of the instrumental textures. I feel such a “lean” style, if losing out on purity and sweetness of tone, adds a certain hard-edged “reality” to the music.
This may not please those looking merely for ear candy, but it certainly reminds one that Mozart was, by the time of composing these masterpieces, in financial and emotional difficulties, fated to live for only three more years. Performances like this arguably demonstrate that late Mozart is proto-Romantic stuff – if he had lived longer, Wolfgang would have given Ludwig a run for his money.
Image of Mozart with Golden Spur courtesy of Joe Moreno.Intro to Mozart | Mendelssohn Early String Symphonies | Beethoven Symphonies
In Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Borders (Wheelock Place), HMV (The Heeren) or Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City).
Having grown up on an ample diet of Greek and Roman mythology, Chia Han-Leon still checks out the adventures of Perseus, go gaga over Botticelli’s Venus, fight imaginary hydras on crowded buses and watch Hercules for laughs.
Other classical music reviews by this or any other writer can be obtained from the InkVault by doing a key word search with the writer’s name.
058: 5.3.98. up.26.5.98