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CD Review

Wolfgang Mozart

Late Symphonies

  • Symphony #28 in C minor, K. 200
  • Symphony #29 in A Major, K. 201
  • Symphony #30 in D Major, K. 202
  • Symphony #31 in D Major "Paris", K. 297
  • Symphony #32 in G Major, K. 318
  • Symphony #33 in B Flat Major, K. 319
  • Symphony #34 in C Major, K. 338
  • Symphony #35 in D Major "Haffner", K. 385
  • Symphony #36 in C Major "Linz", K. 425
  • Symphony #38 in D Major "Prague", K. 504
  • Symphony #39 in E Flat Major, K. 543
  • Symphony #40 in G minor, K. 550
  • Symphony #41 in C Major "Jupiter", K. 551
Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis
Decca 4759120 5CDs
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Originally issued back in 2007 to celebrate the conductor's 80th birthday, this box collects all the Mozart symphonies that the late Colin Davis set down in Dresden. The project took just over a decade (1981-1992), and by the time these forces were finished, period-practice was all the rage. Leonard Bernstein had just passed away, and his readings of the late symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon were similarly viewed as old-fashioned. Those performances have also been packed up into a budget box. But both sets give you a ton of quality Mozart, with Davis giving collectors a larger overview of the composer's symphonic output.

Always a fine Mozart interpreter, Davis has at his disposal one of the oldest and best symphony orchestras in Germany. He recorded a great disc of the composer's overtures on RCA, so I had high hopes. Better yet, his Haydn on Philips was (and still is) a landmark achievement, mainly for the artistic genius of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. These readings prove just as excellent as they would appear to be on paper. The playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden is beyond stunning, with the strings especially crisp. The Dresden winds were the highlight of Blomstedt's underrated Beethoven cycle with this orchestra, and they are remarkable here. The sound, mostly early digital, is the icing on the cake. The whole set sounds wonderful even on bad speakers.

These are very traditional readings. Unlike conductors like David Zinman, who made their name combining period elements into their recordings, Davis chooses sensibly deliberate tempos throughout, deciding to rely on his own abilities in Classical repertoire and leaning on his great ensemble. I said much the same thing regarding Leonard Bernstein's Vienna Philharmonic set, and there are similarities. Both men give the earliest works in their selections a surprising amount of flow and quicker than expected tempos. But once they move into the 30s, the mood shifts and things typically slow down. Davis' Symphony #34 strikes me as inferior to Szell, also on Decca. It's just lacking in momentum, and Szell simply attacks the piece.

On the other hand, Symphonies #30-33 are all wonderful. How much better does the Paris sound on modern instruments! Compare this singing, lyrically flowing performance to Christopher Hogwood's awful sounding period performance from the same time period. Actually, the whole disc (#30-#33 make a fine program) is so lovingly played that you could stop there and call the set a success. Symphony #32 (sometimes called Overture in G) is a fantastic one-movement work that should be heard more often, even if it doesn't reach down to any emotional depths. Symphony #30 is a charming, dance-like symphony that delights without being a masterpiece. Davis shows total commitment.

In the Haffner, Davis and his orchestra deliver a fresh and direct reading that doesn't set any speed records, but proves to be less heavy than Bernstein and Bohm, both on Deutsche Grammophon. Absolutely gorgeous inner movements complete a truly fine version (though some might find that third-movement Minuet a touch stately). No reservations about the Finale, however. It's a joyous one, expertly paced given the approach, and played as well as one could hope. The coupled Prague shares the same strengths, with the Dresden forces completely in sync with one another. The woodwinds glow, as do the strings. Warmth and elegance are in abundance here. The Andante is to die for, while the Finale is a true presto, full of vitality. Can the wind playing here be surpassed?

The fourth disc pairs the Linz with the "Great G minor", or Symphony #40. After a full-bodied introduction of the Linz, Davis erupts into a truly spirited Allegro. The playing is incredible. Again, the pattern of "lovely Andante, measured Minuet" holds true here, and this is certainly not period-practice. But Davis proves so attuned to the music's every detail that it doesn't matter. The Finale is less forward moving than I anticipated and may prove disappointing to some. Still, it never turns heavy and remains unmatched from a technical point of view. The well-known Symphony #40 is a winner. Despite slower tempos than we expect today, the genuine tension between the notes is always present. For a great symphony that has largely turned into elevator music, this means that we hear a wealth of low string and wind detail that many swifter performances miss entirely. The rest of the work follows in the same fashion; slow, but completely convincing in musical honesty and presentation of Mozart's art.

The final disc holds Symphonies #39 and #41. The former work is given a very serious reading that is slower than the norm. You'll probably end up not caring; the Staatskapelle Dresden sounds absolutely radiant here (as they do everywhere) and the deliberate approach pays off when you consider how every note gets to shine. After another ethereally phrased Andante and a jauntier Menuetto than expected, the Finale is plenty exciting and ends the work on a high note. Finally, the set concludes with one of the greatest Jupiter Symphonies ever recorded. From first note to last, conductor and orchestra manage to make the connection to Beethoven and the music to come without ever sacrificing the music's Classical elegance and poise. In the entire set, only #34 strikes me as less than great. An exceptional box of music, allowing you to hear Mozart's late symphonies in the absolute best light possible. Get it while you still can!

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman