Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 39; No. 40
René Jacobs, cond; Freiburg Baroque O (period instruments)
HARMONIA MUNDI 901959 (65:15)
With his landmark series of opera recordings and one disc of symphonies (the “Prague” and “Jupiter”) already under his belt, René Jacobs has securely established himself as one of the most exciting Mozart conductors of our time. So expectations were high, and this second disc of symphonies does not disappoint. Once again he has succeeded in nothing less than re-creating the
shock of the new in these works—not, for the most part, through any outlandish novelty or provocation (although that’s not entirely missing), but on the music’s own 18th-century terms. Pitch is slightly under modern concert pitch, at around A = 435.
Jacobs is no speed merchant, either: With the exception of very brisk minuets, his tempos are on the moderate side by today’s standards. The slow introduction to No. 39 bucks the recent trend toward French-overture-style double dotting at a slow two beats to the bar (see Hogwood, Norrington, and most recently Mackerras/Scottish Chamber Orchestra); Jacobs opts for the traditional single-dotting, at an alert but deliberate four in the bar. The Allegro goes with tremendous high-wire brio, the B?-Major secondary material phrased with great flexibility—those cascading violin traceries and the rising cello response (bars 98 ff.) shaped with an extraordinarily vivid delicacy. (How period playing standards have progressed over the last 30 years! Compare the silky refinement on offer here to Hogwood’s pioneering version—still compellingly fresh-sounding, but the bracingly abrasive playing now really shows its age.) In the Andante, Jacobs’s ear for subtle wind shadings is a thing of wonder; no less so the orchestra’s quicksilver responsiveness to chromatic harmonic nuance. The Minuet brings something completely different, with a vengeance—a bumptious, thigh-slapping Tyrolean treatment that will not be to everyone’s taste (Koopman comes close in tempo, though he’s nowhere near as characterful). The Trio has irresistible bubble, and a humorous example of Jacobs’s penchant for varied repeats: in the melodic leadin to the internal reprise, first time through, the horns ease the tempo exquisitely; second time, they lunge at the reprise with an impatient shove! The Minuet’s
is played with full repeats (though Jacobs does not make a consistent policy of this—in No. 40, he plays the first but not the second repeat on the
). The finale is quite outrageously characterful, full of conspiratorial intrigue and imbroglio. Both repeats are played; again Jacobs uses the occasion for some hijinks second time round—in the closing-section material, hear those subversive basses welling up from the subterranean depths! The end (second time) made me laugh out loud.
In No. 40, Jacobs’s 7:15 for the first movement is fairly moderate by recent standards, comfortably below Hogwood, Norrington, Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Brüggen, Koopman, Minkowski, and Mackerras (to name a few). His way with the music is tough, clipped, and tightly coiled; at the beginning of the development section, he makes the wrenching chromatic shift really register through bold rhetorical underlining; likewise at the other end, with a weary, fatalistic collapse into the recapitulation. With both repeats, the Andante clocks in at more than 15 minutes, longer than many performances of the Funeral March from the “Eroica”! (Hogwood, Norrington, Harnoncourt, Gardiner, and Mackerras also observe both, but at a faster tempo; at the other extreme, Benjamin Britten, in his revelatory 1968 Decca version with the English Chamber Orchestra, takes 16:19.) Again the attention to detail is incredible, with repeated motives never the same twice—e.g., those insistent falling fourths in the first violins, beginning the B?-Major second theme.
The Minuet is given an unusually flexible, sinuous treatment, and the Trio an unaccustomed passionate urgency. But it is Jacobs’s creativity in varying his repeats that will prove most controversial here: In the Minuet’s
the even eighth-notes become
while in the first part of the Trio, second time round the cellos and basses attack their off-beat D (bar 2) with a sudden, stabbing
incongruous in context and disturbing (as doubtless intended). Then in the finale, not only are repeats (again, both observed) subject to varied dynamics, echo effects, and rhetorical underlinings, but second time through the exposition, at the internal reprise of the main theme, the music simply stops in its tracks (middle of bar 28): complete silence for a few seconds—on first hearing, shockingly disorienting. (On a more general note, I remain to be convinced of the stylistic justification for, let alone authenticity of, such touches—while improvised solo embellishments are one thing, such elaborate
effects would have to have been painstakingly rehearsed to a degree I find implausible. From another perspective it could be argued that the grand, monumentally imposing nature of large-scale repetition in Classical-period symphonies depends precisely on
repetition for maximal effect. But I don’t want to make too much of this reservation—as a strategy for repeat-laden modern recordings, it is undeniably effective, and Jacobs’s realizations are unfailingly inventive and provocative, though how well they will hold up to repeated hearings is another matter.) Otherwise the finale receives a dream of a performance—knife-edge string articulation, endless subtleties of wind coloring, and an overwhelming cumulative force of tragic resolution.
To conclude, I’m not about to throw out all my other period-instrument recordings of these symphonies—the versions mentioned above are all quite unique in style and individuality, and I’d be loath to lose any of them. Yet Jacobs really does raise the bar to new levels, in technique, imagination, and expression.
The recording is ideally refined and transparent. More symphonies, please! And then how about a Beethoven cycle?
FANFARE: Boyd Pomeroy
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 40 in G minor, K 550 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Written: 1788; Vienna, Austria
Featured Sound Samples
Symphony no 39: I. Adagio - Allegro
Symphony no 40: IV. Allegro assai
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