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CD Review

Wolfgang Mozart

The Complete Edition

Brilliant Classics 94051 170CDs + DVD & CD-ROM
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With the Philips "Complete Mozart Edition" all but unavailable commercially and costing several times as much as this reissue by Brilliant of their own comprehensive set, the latter represents an attractive option. Although not so "complete" as perhaps Brilliant claims, it's still the best contender if you wish to have the vast majority of Mozart's works in one place. In a longer, cuboid, outer box with a "flip-over" lid each CD is packaged in its own simple cardboard sleeve; genres (symphony, concerto, opera, chamber music etc) are color-coded. There is a further data CD-ROM with PDFs of texts etc. and a supplementary DVD.

There are advantages of owning and listening to a complete edition like this. Three that spring to mind are the chances of happening on an undiscovered gem; taking almost for granted that anything of Mozart's heard or mentioned will be at your fingertips; and being able to follow through with a particular performer or group of performers for any of the genres in the set… Brilliant have by and large used the same combinations of these – either in licensed recordings (actually, from a surprisingly wide array of labels… Avro, Edel, Hungaraton, Nimbus, Olympia, Op. etc) or ones originated "in house." There is a fourth advantage: price. This set can be found now for less than the cost of ten full price CDs; given that there are 170 CDs in this Brilliant set, that's a "discount" of several hundred percent.

Almost inevitably with such a collection, the quality of performances varies. Though, surprisingly, the standard of recording varies less, encouragingly. Recording dates are from 1970 (CD 124 is the sixth and last of the volumes of Mozart's concert arias) to 2005. One's assessment after extended listening is that the quality of performance is surprisingly high. Easily as high as in the other similar enterprises from Brilliant. If you're not a particular aficionado of Mozart but nevertheless want to have all his music available, this represents a very good option indeed. If you are and have gaps, then the bulk of performances and recordings here are of very creditable quality and should not be dismissed because they're individual plants in an extensive garden.

There are some gems: The piano concerti (CDs 12-21), for example, with Derek Han and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Paul Freeman. These are crisp, muscular performances, which nevertheless have depth. At times in the later concerti, the pathos that makes them such loved works is somewhat diminished. But they're memorable for other reasons. The prominence – Brilliant's headquarters are in the Netherlands – of the Dutch "early" music tradition in much of the orchestral music is evident. That means a gentleness and sensible intensity that sit well with Mozart; but are not always what one is used to. There are certainly better complete sets of the symphonies, notably that with Jeffrey Tate and English Chamber Orchestra on Emi Classics (85589). The recordings on the present set with the Mozart Akademie Amsterdam under Jaap Ter Linden are sparkling, stylish and clean. But maybe don't have the depth that a "specialist" set does.

The same can be said for the wind and brass concerti: the horn concerti with Herman Jeurissen and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra under Roy Goodman are full of life and interpretatively sophisticated. For many, the chamber music – and string quartets in particular – represent one of Mozart's supreme achievements. Honors are even between the Franz Schubert Quartet Of Vienna and the Sonare Quartet. The Orlando Quartet with Nobuko Imai, second viola, plays the quintets. In all cases these are warm, idiomatic and wholly delightful interpretations.

Then there are six whole CDs (119-124) of concert arias. Only the most devoted Mozart collector is likely already to have and want regularly to listen to everything here. So the chances are that there will be some pleasant surprises. And the playing of the likes of the Staatskapelle Dresden, C.P.E. Bach Chamber Orchestra and European Chamber Orchestra is strong. On the other hand, one is tempted at times to "notice" the insistence on inclusiveness which the director of this project for Brilliant, Pieter van Winkel, made: five CDs of dances (CDs 47-52) is also a lot of listening.

The solo and small scale piano music comes on a total of 14 CDs. This is a section to be recommended. CDs 82-86 have the piano sonatas with Klára Würtz: generally inspiring if just a little dry in places. CDs 87-89 contain the piano variations, where Bart Van Oort and Pieter-Jan Belder play delightfully on the fortepiano. CDs 90-92 have other keyboard works, with Luc Devos (piano), Bernard Foccroulle (organ), Guy Penson (clavichord, harpsichord and Tangentenflügel) and Dennis James (glass harmonica). CDs 93-95 contain the piano duets – again using fortepiano – with Bart Van Oort and Ursula Dütschler. Whether you are pleased or convinced by this portion of the set may well come down to whether you enjoy Mozart on fortepiano. For many it will be a lasting treat and something that infuses new life into often otherwise familiar repertoire.

It's perhaps in the operas that this Brilliant set is most uneven; but of course represents the greatest bargain financially. The 19 operas actually occupy 43 CDs. There's a good chance that you'll either want, or already have recordings of the half a dozen or so best known Mozart operas. Even here, the performances are not to be sniffed at. Così Fan Tutte (CDs 164-166) is the recording with Monica Groop (Dorabella), Nancy Argenta (Despina) etc and Sigiswald Kuijken's La Petite Bande Orchestra and Chorus, the same instrumentalists as on the Le Nozze Di Figaro (CDs 158-160).

So why not look at the lesser-known ones: CDs 130-132, for example, contain La Finta Semplice? Here the cast is one which you'd be glad to get on any recording: Helen Donath (Rosina), Robert Holl (Don Cassandro), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Don Polidoro), Teresa Berganza (Giacinta), Thomas Moser (Fracasso), Robert Lloyd (Simone) with the Mozarteum-Orchester Salzburg under Leopold Hager. That's not atypical. Lucio Silla (CDs 141-143) also has excellent performances by Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Ann Murray, for example; while Zaïde (CDs 149,150) has Sandrine Piau and Paul Agnew with Ton Koopman conducting.

There is a DVD entitled "MOZART INTERACTIVE An Interactive DVD by Titus Leber". This contains a couple of hours worth (80) music and opera video clips with interactive navigation and an additional 7½ hours of music. Software covers the major events in Mozart's life and times. There is a varied team of narrators and performers, including Herbert von Karajan, Samuel Ramey, Kathleen Battle, Julia Varady, Nicolai Gedda, Theo Adam and Colin Davis. Nothing spectacularly original; but it's a useful addition which helps to round off the sense that you're buying something complete.

Sets like this (and Brilliant has already released similar "complete" collections of other major composers, including Bach and Haydn, Beethoven and Chopin) run risks. There is a danger that they might be seen to reduce to the status of some of the greatest music ever written to that of a mass market commodity. Brilliant's marketing has in the past been criticized for being somewhat… "direct" or "popular". This is in part to miss the point. An aggressive (for the serious music world) pre-packaged and available set really doesn't have the same negative élan as do, say, suggestive CD covers. That's because the quality of the recordings (in this Mozart edition for sure) does as well by the composer's music as many other recordings available.

The "set" mentality does, however, raise a few interesting questions: How important is it to have everything (or almost everything: there are some omissions) of a composer in one place? To that the answer is that it can be very useful – they're on tap for when you need them. Then, you might wonder whether or when you'll ever listen to everything you've bought. Again, that probably doesn't matter. The experience is more akin to owning an encyclopedia, perhaps, than a novel; and browsing it often. Lastly, is it really important to have consistency of performer? Well, this Brilliant set is pretty consistent in each genre. The same sets of artists' work have been drawn upon in most cases. Your overall thoughts and feelings on listening to as much Mozart as this set contains are likely to be ones of wonder at Mozart's genius first and foremost, and only secondly at the many ways in which he can be interpreted. Maybe that's the intention.

It's obvious that Brilliant has thought long and hard about this release. It's far from any old collection slung together for the sake of having a complete edition. Recordings have been selected on grounds of quality, not mere competence or availability. The tactics of licensing prior recordings and opting for cardboard sleeves instead of jewel cases, and of what must be some pretty nifty projection of sales (the set is apparently selling very well in Europe, France in particular) seem shrewd ones. On balance they must be judged a success.

You would hardly expect this many works each and every one to have detailed liner notes. Of course they don't. The pdfs that come on the CD-ROM carry the barest details. But that's a small price to pay for the comprehensiveness and general overall quality of the offering. Nor can one generalize much more about the recording qualities – except to say that they're much better than merely adequate. Brilliant is on record, of course, as advocating the selling of repertoire, not stars.

So, although this won't satisfy every Mozart lover, it's too good an opportunity to miss in terms of convenience (and price) alone. Many of the performances, while not always so distinguished or special as you would expect them to be if you were to seek them out individually, are nevertheless extremely enjoyable. They reveal aspects of Mozart that you might not get elsewhere. They're for the most part genuine, honest and full of life. There is a bias towards some of the strengths of the Historically Informed Performance movement. Some listeners will go further; they'll find some of these CDs beyond criticism. Again, though, when set alongside recent single issues, it may be hard to identify just what it is about the components of this Brilliant set that make them recommendable. But there is much to satisfy,

And at this price, with this degree of variety in approach and execution, recommendable they are.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.