Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Simon Rattle – Mozart’s Last Three Symphonies – 39, 40, 41 (Jupiter), K543, K550, K551

Symphony No.39 in E flat, K543
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550
Symphony No.41 in C, K551 (Jupiter)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mat Hennek EMIMozart’s last three Symphonies are more or less universally acknowledged as among the finest examples of the genre – even as the pinnacles of the symphonic form in the 18th-century. And yet such widespread acclaim has not perhaps given due regards to the considerably different emotional worlds they each inhabit. If the last is entitled the ‘Jupiter’ (admittedly in reference to the Classical deity) the other two almost seem to constitute different planets or world worlds in their own right. Sir Simon Rattle, however, gave proper consideration to this facet in his interpretations of them, giving to each one a fairly consistent mode of expression and making them out as distinct from their companions.

Symphony 39 is in Mozart’s majestic, ‘Masonic’ key of E flat. It is also perhaps the most Haydnesque of all his symphonies with its slow introduction and bubbling finale, and it was this approach that Rattle largely adopted. The most conspicuous instance of contrasting breadth in phrasing was reserved in the Minuet, the place where it might be least expected, but even so this was taken as one to a bar such that it was still imbued with a lively skip. From the start of the Symphony the OAE brought a sense of energy with the fierce, militaristic sound of the drums in the Adagio introduction, and with the bustle and conflict following through into the ensuing Allegro. The spirit of Haydn hovered in the tension that emerged from the contrast between the lyrical and the impassioned episodes in the development. There was a playful and teasing way with the dotted main melody of the second movement, though this tended to become mannered as a result, losing the sense of Mozart’s con moto indication. Had the theme been the subject of the sort of variations Haydn was accustomed to write in his ‘London’ Symphonies (rather than the subject of the sonata-form structure it in fact is), this would have passed muster, but there was something to be said in this case for simply allowing the melody to speak with true unadorned Mozartean elegance. As the recurrences of the melody turned to the minor however there was a hushed intensity which brought to mind the haunted, concentrated mood of the slow movements of Haydn’s late symphonies and string quartets which, by and large, would only follow in the decade after Mozart penned these final symphonies in 1788.

The touch of Haydn was apparent in the second half of the finale: in its repetition the dramatic pauses between phrases were more pregnant and the musical argument in general was stormier the second time around. All the repeats were observed in this Symphony, giving Rattle the occasion to heighten the tension and contrast in each case, making this a rather impulsive, even raw, performance overall. The main defects were that the biting minor seconds of the slow introduction did not make as much impact as they could have done, the delightful duet between the clarinet and flute in the Trio sounded indifferent, and the runs of semiquavers in the finale were occasionally untidy and threatened to run away with themselves.

Having focused on drama and passion in K543, Rattle then cultivated a mood of quieter earnestness in Symphony 40, to bring out its character of resignation and tragedy. Although the work is often regarded as the expression of an almost unprecedented violence and passion in Mozart – and this was not necessarily absent from this performance in this concert – Rattle was able to find more of the “Grecian lightness and grace” that Schumann identified in it. Accordingly the performance displayed more of the work’s subtlety and elegance which in turn heightened its tragic effect. The horns seemed intrusive in the development of the first movement, and the little rising two-note motifs in the woodwinds in the second movement sounded like irritating bird twitters, distracting from the accumulating grandeur of the arpeggios in the strings as they built up to an otherwise impressive climax. A certain elegance was again brought to bear in the Minuet, despite its cross-rhythms, by being taken as one to a bar, though the Trio was suffocated perhaps, as a result of the comparatively speedy tempo, for the incursion of the rising major chords should create more of an influx of air and light there. In the finale the fast-spun lines of notes in the strings were more together than in K543. But in the second half of that movement, a rather brusque appearance of the staccato crotchets that pick out most of the notes of the full chromatic twelve-tone row heralded a development of bewilderment and anxiety that had not been in evidence before and so did not make for a wholly convincing account of the movement as a whole. Interestingly there was a similar unprepared-for irruption of violent drama at the beginning of the second half of the second movement too. In both instances Mozart’s repeats of these second sections in their respective movements were not observed, presumably designed to enhance the effect of these storms-out-of-nowhere, but whether or not one was convinced by the impact of the musical interpretation itself, the decision was an appropriate means in which to couch that end rather than risking the attenuation of those commotions by slavish repetition.

The ‘Jupiter’ Symphony was given a stately and dignified performance that, rightly, did not necessarily mark the piece as either the culmination of the evening’s concert or of Mozart’s symphonic output in general – he cannot have known that it would be his last. Certainly there was a solid and objective quality to the performance that was perhaps meant to draw the work’s connection with the bold and forthright but neutral character of several other of the composer’s works in C major, most notably the Piano Concerto No.25 (K503), the ‘Linz’ Symphony, or the String Quintet (K515) for instance. A less charitable verdict on the performance might perhaps have regarded it as bordering on the stodgy, by not yielding a great deal to the complexity of the inner lines and turmoil in the first movement, not to mention in the miraculous Fugal Fine. But what I think Rattle really aimed at was a sustained and monolithic account, like the immovable and indefatigable rule of the deity after whom the Symphony was (posthumously) named, and that was successful.

Tempos were generally steady throughout, even during the anguished, syncopated episodes in the second movement, and in the Minuet, where again it was one to a bar, though three beats to each could just as easily – and comfortably – have been discerned. It was not clear whether the rasping of the horns that provided the base for the woodwind interjections at the end of the Trio was simply ugly playing or was intended as a little joke, though I suppose that one would not exclude the other (the effect was more akin to a gesture from the Musikalischer Spass, K522). This only really stood out because of the greater beauty of tone evinced in the performance of this Symphony as compared with the others, For example, the melody in the violins of the second movement was floated like wisps over the firmer, but still smooth, ground of the cellos, and the playful dialogue between the flute and oboe in the Trio made up for the less enchanting equivalent in K543. There was an appropriate sense of grandeur in the finale, though one which was in keeping with what had been sustained previously. Although the exposition was repeated, the development and recapitulation was not, despite the fact that there was sufficient momentum in the performance to have sustained the extra length which that repetition would have engendered. It felt rather like a headlong rush to the end then, though no doubt some will have regarded the greater concision as a virtue and it is unlikely that there could have been, or would have been much need for, variation in another traversal of that section to add to the cumulative effect of the music. This also happened therefore to mirror the structure of the first two movements in this performance, where the first halves were repeated but not the second ones (though of course because Mozart did not call for this in the latter instances).

By comparison with the review for the performance of the same programme by the same forces in the same venue nearly twelve years ago, Rattle’s approaches to these Symphonies seem to have remained reasonably consistent, though there may have been some mellowing with time, and a re-think of what repeats to observe. The speeds chosen for virtually all the movements could not be said to have been unduly fast – the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ was among the swiftest, but even so the counterpoint remained clear. The second movements, though by no means a trudge, could fairly have been described as ‘slow’ in comparison with their surrounding movements. The generally measured manner with all three Symphonies did not militate against their being instilled with vivacity and a sense of organic growth. Who knows what a further twelve years might add to these performers’ accounts of the same masterpieces?

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