Mozart 39-41/Lorin Maazel

Symphony No.39 in E flat, K543
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550
Symphony No.41 in C, K.551 (Jupiter)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 9 February, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Continuing the plethora of concerts commemorating Mozart’s 250th birthday, Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic in the first of four performances of the composer’s last three symphonies. This concert was billed as part of a “Magic of Mozart Festival”, but the evening came off as something less than magical. Although there was much beauty in the playing of these marvellous works, there was a lack of electricity in the Hall.

Any performance of these great symphonies will be shaped to a considerable extent by factors that are in place long before the first downbeat. A large orchestra playing modern instruments tuned at concert pitch in a large auditorium, as on this occasion, will inevitably sound quite different from a small ‘period instrument’ band tuning at a lower pitch and in a smaller hall, as in the recent traversal of the same three symphonies by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his musicians in Alice Tully Hall.

Other significant decisions, such as the disposition of the orchestra sections and which repeats are observed, can also have a profound effect on the final product. For example, Gardiner employed antiphonal placement of the violin sections and was, generally, more generous with repeats than Maazel. All things considered, the intimacy of the smaller hall, the warmer sound of the ‘period’ instruments and the high energy of Gardiner’s ensemble made his reading of the symphonies preferable.

Mozart’s Symphony No.39 is only one of three (the Prague and Linz are the others) that begins with a slow introduction. Under Maazel, the opening passage was loud and ponderous, with timpani and trumpets overbalancing the rest of the orchestra, and the dark texture of the Adagio carried over into the succeeding Allegro, making the striking, leaping violin figures that pervade the movement seem more like cries for help than joyful exclamations. Again at the movement’s close, the timpani and trumpets overdid what should have been a subtle touch of majesty. Maazel and the orchestra fared better in the Andante con moto second movement, which was gracefully played, with the woodwinds standing out particularly, and better still in the Minuet, one of Mozart’s finest gems, with its Ländler trio section featuring a delightful and well-played clarinet solo. In the finale, Maazel restrained the timpani and trumpets much more than in the opening movement, creating a better balance of forces. The violins were outstanding here, beautifully introducing the lively theme on which the movement is based, developing it in scales and figures reminiscent of the opening movement, and playing with a clarity that permitted the woodwinds to shine through. In the concluding portion of the finale, Maazel made effective use of dynamic variation in bringing the symphony to its stirring but surprisingly sudden close.

In Symphony No.40, which has neither trumpets nor timpani, the problems of balance encountered in No.39 were not presented, and Maazel generally achieved an excellent balance – particularly between the strings and horns. (He also chose to follow Mozart’s original 1788 scoring, omitting the clarinets that the composer added later.) Maazel attacked the first movement with a very quick tempo, driving it relentlessly from start to finish, but in the second movement Andante he tended toward the opposite extreme, setting a very slow pace that seemed somewhat metronomic early on, but took on an increasingly graceful character as the movement progressed. Both strings and winds were in excellent form here and in the ensuing Minuet, which is so much more than a courtly ballroom dance; Maazel then plunged without a pause into the final movement and at a very rapid tempo. After the repeat of the first section, the breakneck pace was interrupted briefly as the movement’s principal theme bounced jauntily between the violins and woodwinds, resuming with contrapuntal passages on the strings (although the accompanying horn calls seemed unduly jarring). Maazel continued the rapid tempo, building tension right up to the symphony’s conclusion.

The best playing of the evening came in the Jupiter, with Maazel striking a fine balance of orchestral forces. Although the opening bars felt rather flat (not in pitch but in spirit), the orchestra recovered quickly and performed the opening movement quite well indeed (with the opening passage sounding much better in the repeat). In the Andante cantabile the muted strings provided a rich, often throbbing, underpinning to the plaintive woodwinds and, in the minuet, the timpani and trumpets provided just the right touch of rhythmic emphasis as the violins played the theme, interrupted by an inventively contrapuntal woodwind passage.

However, Mozart’s most brilliant use of counterpoint comes in the finale, when, following the regal tutti passage that caps off the violins’ initial statement of the theme, the strings repeated the theme in five-part counterpoint. Maazel sustained the high energy of the finale, building to the dramatic coda, in which a gentle passage on the strings and flutes gives way to the stirring sounding of the main theme, first by the horns and then by the oboes, flutes and violins, with the entire orchestra then joining in astounding counterpoint to the symphony’s end.

This concert, although enjoyable, was nevertheless disappointing in its failure to fulfil the high expectations that Maazel and the Philharmonic engender. The musicians appeared proficient and workmanlike rather than inspired. Merely appearing on stage usually generates bravos from audiences nowadays, but they were lacking at this concert’s end – perhaps because early-starting weeknight performances attract an audience that is more eager to get home than to remain and cheer. As this was only the first of four performances of this programme, one can hope that the remaining ones would be even better played and received, especially since this programme is scheduled to be the first to be made available by the Philharmonic, through Deutsche Grammophon, for paid digital downloading.

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