Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 8;
K 320, “Posthorn”
Roger Norrington, cond; Stuttgart RSO (period instruments)
HÄNSSLER 93.213 (68: 23) Live: Stuttgart 9/8/2006;
There was a time, not so long ago in years but eons ago in style, when “in-between” performances of Mozart and Haydn symphonies—the former by Sir Charles Mackerras (Telarc), the latter by Antal Dorati (Philips)—were not only all the rage but stylistically acceptable, sometimes even preferable to many listeners. That time seems to have receded into the past, and it is because of the astounding progress made by such conductors as John Eliot Gardiner, Jos van Immerseel, Trevor Pinnock, and Roger Norrington that this is so.
I dislike retreading what seems to me old ground in my reviews, but readers new to my comments seem to be astoundingly put off by what they perceive as hostility on my part to historically informed performers and performances, and since we are not discussing orchestral performance style rather than solo or chamber-music style, perhaps a recounting of my views is in order. I am not against trying to perform music in the past in as close a style to what the composer wanted as I am against a reinterpretation of the past in a post-modern aesthetic. In simpler terms, musicians of the 18th century were living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people. They had passion and feeling; there is ample written evidence that instrumentalists and even whole orchestras modeled their musical style on that of singers; and there is no solid evidence whatsoever, but merely what I call “interpretive spin,” that chamber groups or orchestras played music in a clipped, clean, rhythmically mechanical style, with no sense of phrasing, legato, or rubato. Granted, all of these elements were distorted out of reasonable compliance during the Romantic era and applied thus to all music past or present with equal inappropriateness. But 18th-century music was still meant to breathe, to be felt emotionally, to (as Pier Francesco Tosi put it) combine affective (emotional) and decorative (technical) elements in a way that touched the listener’s emotions.
Thus I have come to reject the most clipped, clinical, and metronome-bound of early-music performers and performances as post-modern nonsense. No one in the 18th century played or enjoyed music in a mechanical, technically precise, but emotionally cold manner. I simply refuse to believe this. Audiences of the 18th century weren’t into Taco or
any more than they were into the Trans-Siberian (Rock) Orchestra.
Roger Norrington, like the other conductors mentioned above (and several others who I have no room to mention), has likewise never subscribed to this view. Perhaps because he came of age at the very beginning of the historically informed era, forming and directing the Schütz Choir in 1962, he developed (as musicians put it) big ears, picking up what he liked and didn’t like from the pioneering work of Thurston Dart, Møgens Wöldike, Karl Ristenpart, Nikolaus Harnoncort, Helmuth Rilling, even such late-Romantic early-music performers as Raymond Leppard and Anthony Lewis. By the time he founded the London Classical Players in 1978, he was ready to compete with them as well as a more clinical school of performers, such as Christopher Hogwood, who had come to dominate the early-music scene.
I noticed that one of my
colleagues had some uncharitable comments regarding Volume 1 of this series, of which this CD is Volume 3 of a planned six. His comments seemed to be particularly centered on the imprecise orchestral playing of Symphony No. 1, an early work of real genius (Glenn Gould adored it, and even conducted performances of it). He was kinder in his comments regarding Symphonies No. 25 and No. 41. I have to say that, to my ears, Norrington’s performance of the early Symphony No. 8 here is quite fine, brisk and taut without sounding overly hard-driven, though musically it sounds more derivative of a composer I’ve recently discovered through records, Vanhal, though even as an adolescent Mozart could never be quite as pedantic or perfunctory in writing a symphony as Vanhal was.
The Symphony K 320 was first performed at the Vienna Burgtheater in 1783. Mozart assembled its three movements from the “Posthorn” Serenade he had written four years earlier, so this is a composer-sanctioned transcription. The way Norrington conducts the slow introduction to the first movement put me a little in mind of Beethoven’s Second Symphony and, indeed, when the Allegro con spirito erupts, it is with an absolutely jolly spirit. The orchestra is clearly enjoying itself here. The second movement has a sad, elegiac feeling to it that almost contradicts its earlier incarnation as a serenade. To a certain extent, so too does the strongly voiced finale, which seems more dramatic than one would expect from a “Posthorn” Serenade.
Norrington seems to have hit upon a new way of conducting the middle- and late-period symphonies of Mozart, which is to use only half the orchestra in soft passages, only bringing in the full orchestra for the louder
passages. Some have criticized this experiment, but I find that it works extremely well, especially in the last 10 symphonies. Norrington’s way of conducting the soft, opening string figure of the 40th Symphony lies somewhere between the tragic cast that Furtwängler and Toscanini brought to it and the upbeat jollity that Beecham drew from it. I personally feel that it is a shade too fast. When the full orchestra comes in, however, the dramatic impact is almost overwhelming. This aesthetic works extremely well throughout this symphony, particularly in the starkly dramatic Menuetto, one of the finest performances I’ve heard in recent years. Oddly, the quicksilver final movement has more a feeling of impending tragedy in this performance than the first.
I am not quite willing to recommend these performances of the symphonies above the groundbreaking set that Trevor Pinnock made for DG in the early 1990s, but it is certainly interesting, especially the “Posthorn.” If you have room in your collection for yet another Mozart symphony CD, this would be a fine acquisition.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 8 in D major, K 48 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1768; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 40 in G minor, K 550 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1788; Vienna, Austria
Be the first to review this title