Mozart: Youth Symphonies, Volume 1 (SACD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  PentaTone Classics 5186 112.

When director Milos Foreman and producer Saul Zantz asked Neville Marriner to conduct the music for Amadeus, their 1984 movie depiction of Mozart's life, there was good reason for the choice. These recordings are one of them.

In the early 1970's, Marriner was among the first conductors to record Mozart's early symphonies in stereo, a fairly startling and groundbreaking enterprise for the time. Back then, most people had pretty much disregarded most of the composer's youthful writing in favor of the big later pieces. Marriner showed the world the worth of some of the earlier works.

Then, in 2003 the folks at PentaTone Classics unearthed the original master tapes for a number of these Marriner recordings that Philips Records had originally done in the Quadraphonic format but never released that way. PentaTone remastered them in a series of four volumes in the two-layer, hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD format, this first volume of four containing the Symphony in G, and the Symphonies Nos. 7a, 12, and 18. Of the four symphonies, I must admit the two very earliest are charming but shallow; that is, they are tuneful, jaunty, and sweet, but they haven't a lot of substance one can remember. By contrast, Nos. 12 and, especially, 18 are more original, more complex, and more remarkable. Indeed, No. 18 is alone worth the SACD's asking price. That is, if you don't mind the somewhat hefty cost of these four-channel discs.

Needless to say, Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields perform the works with their customary sprightly vigor and refined taste, and the PentaTone engineers remastered the Philips recordings in audio highly reminiscent of how many of us recall Philips discs sounding in the early Seventies.

The sound, which Philips recorded at Brent Town Hall, Wembly, London in 1972 and 1973, is big and warm and a tad soft in the midrange, with traces of hardness at times in the treble, nevertheless providing the relatively small ensemble with a rather larger size than their numbers would admit; nonetheless, the audio seems entirely appropriate. This is not a period-instruments group, after all, and the sound seems properly traditional. Indeed, in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, I found the sound quite pleasing. It's maybe not entirely of audiophile quality, but it's reasonably natural and well defined.

Again, my only hesitation here is in recommending a person spend money on a hybrid SACD for two-channel stereo alone if a person hasn't got an SACD player to enjoy the full capabilities of the SACD or surround-sound layers. On the other hand, as far as I can determine at the moment of this writing, investing in this disc (or PentaTone's complete box set) may be the best way to obtain the Marriner performances since the original Philips discs in complete sets may cost even more, if you can even find them. And if you do have an SACD player, well, the disc seems self-recommending.


To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa