Mozart: The Late Symphonies (CD review)
When conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein left the New York Philharmonic his performances by and large tended to change. Especially after he took up with the Vienna Philharmonic, his interpretations seemed to slow down considerably, lose some of the electric charge that drove his earlier work. Some people attributed this to age and called the later readings "mature." Others just thought he was getting old and tired. Not so, however, with these mid 1980s' recordings of the late Mozart symphonies, reissued by DG in 2003. Like the live performances I was privileged to hear from him around this time period, the recordings show no signs of anything slowing down whatsoever.
Taken as a whole, this set is undoubtedly one of the best all-around collections of late Mozart symphonies available today, and they come in DG's low-priced Trio series, a bargain by any standards. Every piece of music on the three discs sounds exactly right. Not only right, but sometimes downright wondrous. Nos. 36 and 41, for instance, the gems of the set, are never ordinary yet they feel comfortably worn. The tempos are perfectly judged, the caressing inflections lovingly applied, the outer movements spirited, the slow movements gentle and lilting. These symphonies are noble and uplifting, delicate and soothing as the occasion demands. This is the Bernstein of old: romantic and nostalgic, open and bighearted. I had heard only his VPO "Jupiter" before coming to this set, and I was mightily impressed by the rest of the box.
Yes, there were other conductors for whom one could make a case for better (or more appealing) interpretations of individual symphonies. We cannot discount the likes of Bohm, Walter, Klemperer, Karajan, Barenboim (my own favorite), Marriner, and the like in particular works. But taken overall, it's hard to say that any of them surpassed Bernstein.
The only minor snag in this three-disc, budget-priced set is some of DG's sound. I say "some" because it varies. Half of the pieces Bernstein recorded live, as he was fond of doing, and it shows. The live recordings, Nos. 35, 39, 40, and 41, seem slightly more recessed, more distantly miked, producing a softer, mellower, and occasionally more hollow sound. The recordings made without an audience appear better detailed, though not always more realistic. Nevertheless, I preferred the cleaner, clearer sonics of the absent audience. You'll hear the difference immediately, as those done without an audience also have the appearance of being a touch louder in volume.
In any case, I wouldn't worry overmuch about the sound. The performances are solidly in the grand tradition, the glorious Vienna forces playing superbly as always, and Bernstein at the top of his game.
To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:
Meet the Staff
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.