Mozart: Symphonies 39 & 41 (CD review)

John Eliot Gardiner, The English Baroque Soloists. Soli Deo Gloria SDG 711.

Oh, joy!  Another live recording.

I always cringe when I read the words "Recorded live" on a disc's packaging because usually it means the sound is not going to be as good as a studio production. In this case, the sound is fine, and I'll get to it in a moment.

John Eliot Gardiner has long been a leading light, a guiding star, in the field of period-instruments performances, and these recordings of Mozart's Symphonies Nos. 39 and 41 (both from 1788) with the English Baroque Soloists are good examples of his work. They are dynamic, energetic, and spirited. If they lose a little something in the way of good cheer along the way, well, I suppose that is just how Gardiner views them. I would have preferred the music done a little more joyously, but he's the conductor here, not me.

In the Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K.543, Gardiner begins the Adagio with a somewhat heavy hand, but then he begins to inject more life into it as it goes along, finally achieving a pleasant balance. Although the Andante has a decidedly masculine feel about it, one has to understand these later Mozart symphonies are the biggest, grandest purely orchestral works he wrote, so Gardiner has every right to approach them in a big, exalted style. The Minuet seems a bit clumsy at first, even for a period-instruments band, yet it, too, settles into a sweetly lilting pattern within a few minutes. Gardiner then takes the Finale at a brisk pace, infusing it at the same time with a degree of splendor that does it justice.

Mozart's last symphony, No. 41 in C major, K.551 "Jupiter," is his crowning jewel. While it should sound majestic and imposing, the best conductors have also imbued it with an unbridled joy. Gardiner's is a solid performance, to be sure, but it does seem a little more somber than those of, say, Jochum (DG), Beecham (EMI), Bernstein (DG, also live), or Barenboim (EMI), who inject more magic and more electricity into the proceedings. On the other hand, among period-instruments renditions, Gardiner's must rank very high.

Now, as to the recording, I can understand some listeners wanting to enjoy the spontaneity and animation of a live performance. And I can understand the desire of record companies wanting to make a disc as economically as possible; after all, it's cheaper to record a performance already paid for by an audience than have to drag all the players into a studio for several sessions. In any case, Soli Deo Gloria recorded this Mozart concert live at Cadogan Hall, London, in 2006, the resultant sound more than adequate for most of its course, and in some instances almost startlingly lifelike.

However, any time there's a lull in the music, we hear a good deal of paper rustling and feet moving, interspersed with occasional wheezes and coughs. Otherwise, expect excellent stage depth from the orchestra, miked at a moderate distance; a realistic string tone; plenty of midrange detail; a wide dynamic range and impact; decent bass and highs; and a pleasantly ambient environment, with a touch of fairly heavy resonant bloom. Unfortunately, there is a blast of applause at the end one has to put up with. I guess people get used to it; I never do.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa