The sound on this 2012 Harmonia Mundi rerelease is glorious, sensational, terrific, tremendous, superb, first-class, tiptop. Which is to say very good.
The performances, well, maybe not so clear-cut. Let’s say they’re a little more problematical, though fascinating.
The album opens with conductor Rene Jacobs and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra playing Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, “Prague.” The popular nickname “Prague” came about because the composer premiered it in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), in 1787, in appreciation of the Czech people, who loved his music. However, it contains no specific Bohemian allusions, themes, or flavor.
What is different about Jacobs’s approach to the symphony is that, first, he performs it with a period-instruments ensemble. Well, OK, that’s not too different anymore, since the early-music movement has been going strong for many years, and one can find any number of other period-instruments performances of Mozart from the likes of Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players, Franzjosef Maier and the Collegium Aureum, etc. Still, we don’t hear too many such performances.
What’s also different, of course, is that Mozart himself only wrote three movements for the “Prague” symphony, omitting a Minuet. Yet that is not a serious “difference,” either, as Mozart had done it several times before. No, the most striking difference about Jacobs’s reading is in his speeds. While Mozart indicated in his tempo markings variations like “Vivace” and “Presto,” Jacobs seems to take more than a few things either at a spirited gallop or at a routinely mundane pace. Now, don’t get me wrong. The early-music crowd have been debating tempos forever, with some of them declaring, for example, that in the eighteenth century orchestras routinely played faster movements slower than we do today and slower movements faster. Other folks have suggested that orchestras played everything slower back then and still others that orchestras played everything faster. Jacobs apparently adheres to the latter belief, at least most of the time.
To say that the opening Adagio-Allegro provides dramatic punch would be putting it mildly. Under Jacobs, it rolls zestfully and dramatically along, perhaps trying to capture some of the atmosphere of Mozart’s operas at the time, The Marriage of Figaro just before it and Don Giovanni just after. Allowing no cuts, Jacobs even with his bracing pace takes over fifteen minutes to complete it. Remarkable. It’s a long, breathless run. The Andante and Finale come up likewise animated and exciting but lose some of the beauty of their melodic line along the way. Jacobs’s approach may or may not be one Mozart might have taken, which is a bit beside the point: It doesn’t sound much like any “Prague” I’ve ever heard; it is, as I say, different.
Be that as it may, I found Jacobs’s reading of the Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter,” far more to my liking. The first, second, and fourth movements appear well judged, if a tad quicker and with a freer rubato (of tempo and dynamic accent) than the norm. Here, Jacobs provides stimulating interpretations that seem to me the equal of any I’ve heard. Nevertheless, in the Minuet Jacobs reverts to his Ferrari style and races through it in record time. What you don’t get with Jacobs is much of the lyricism or lilt of Mozart’s music, replaced by a theatrical energy and fleetness, which in their way can be quite refreshing.
Harmonia Mundi originally recorded the music at the Saal Tirol, Congress Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria, in 2006, and the sound they obtained is as vital as the performances. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is a relatively small chamber ensemble, so what we get is nicely transparent, ideally miked to provide wide stage dimensions and a touch of depth, too. Dynamic contrasts and sonic impact are strong, with a flat frequency balance and vibrant timpani support. There is a reasonable degree of air around the instruments, and along with the clarity of sound I described comes a pleasant ambient warmth. I can say without a doubt that even if you don’t like the interpretations, it’s hard to say these aren’t some of the best-recorded Mozart symphonies you’ll find anywhere.