Mozart: Symphony No. 35 "Haffner" (CD review)

Also, Serenade in D Major "Posthorn"; March No. 1. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien. Sony 88883720682.

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:

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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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

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.

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