Mozart: Symphony No. 35 "Haffner" (CD review)
In 1953 with his wife Alice, Austrian cellist and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded the Concentus Musicus Wien, which is now the world's oldest continuously performing period-instruments ensemble. That they are still recording after all these years is remarkable in itself; that they are still producing as vigorous and historically informed performances as we find on this 2014 Sony release is doubly remarkable.
Maestro Harnoncourt starts off the program with Mozart's little March No. 1 in D Major, K.335, a brief but energetic piece that serves as an appropriate curtain-raiser for the album. Given Harnoncourt's years (b. 1929) he leads a sprightly performance. There appears to be no slowing down with age for him, for good or for bad depending on your point of view about such things. Moreover, even though the band itself must have turned over many times, they sound as lively and attentive as ever. Maybe more so, as they appear more spry as the decades pass.
Next, we get Mozart's Serenade for Orchestra No. 9 in D Major, K. 320, also called the "Posthorn Serenade." It consists of seven movements: an Adagio, a Minuetto, an Andantino, a Rondeau, an Andante, another Minuetto, and a Finale. Mozart wrote the piece in 1779, and it got its nickname from the use of a post horn in the second minuet, the piece also featuring an oboe, flute, and flautino prominently.
I mentioned earlier that Harnoncourt leads a lively performance of the march, and he does likewise in the "Posthorn." Understand, however, that I'm not necessarily referring to ultrafast tempos. Indeed, Harnoncourt takes things at an easy, listenable pace most of the time, never leaving one breathless as some period performances can. Instead, the conductor seems intent on drawing out all the melodic lines as well as emphasizing the rhythms in as cozy a manner as possible, even though he can attack the contrasts with vigor. The result I might better describe as being alive, perhaps not the most exciting reading you'll ever hear, but one that's entertaining, with an ever-so-slightly darker tone as well.
Finally, we get the center attraction, the Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385 (or the "Haffner" Symphony because a prominent Salzburg family, the Haffners, commissioned it). Mozart wrote the work in 1782, taking much of the material from an earlier piece he had written for the Haffner family, the equally famous "Haffner" Serenade.
Mozart wrote of the Haffner Symphony that "The first Allegro must be really fiery, the last as fast as possible." Here, Harnoncourt follows the composer's instructions well enough, although he varies the tempo internally so much that it never sounds as frenetic as it sometimes can. Harnoncourt produces undoubted thrills without resorting to a completely all-out attack on our sensibilities.
The succeeding Andante is as gracefully lyrical as Harnoncourt can make it without slowing it down to a crawl. The movement has a lovely lilt to it, a sweet dance-like quality that quickly and easily pleases the ear, and it's probably the highlight of the Harnoncourt program.
The conductor gets the Minuetto off to an appropriately forceful start before settling down to its more tranquil main theme, at which point it's reasonably lovely. Thankfully, Harnoncourt doesn't take the finale "as fast as possible," which would simply leave one panting for breath and destroy the score's musical integrity in the progress, so he compromises a tad, still providing plenty of vigorous momentum while slowing down enough to let the music breathe a little.
Of course, the bottom line for any new recording of an old warhorse is whether it's worth buying yet version of something one already has. I mean, given that practically every major conductor of the past sixty years has recorded the Haffner Symphony and the Posthorn Serenade in stereo, the competition is great. However, when you consider the number of period-instruments recordings there are of these works, the field becomes considerably smaller. Then when you consider the experience and authority Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his players bring to the works, maybe the recording is at least deserving of a listen.
Producer Martin Sauer and engineer Michael Brammann recorded the music at the Great Hall of the Viennese Music Association, Vienna in December 2012. The sound they obtained is moderately close but without much edginess, harshness, or bright forwardness. In fact, it's pleasingly warm and mildly resonant, yet with a reasonably good degree of detail, too, a strong transient response, and a modest orchestral depth. It may not be absolute top-drawer audiophile sound but it is comfortable and revealing all the same.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:
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.