How to do Mozart
In an earlier post, I took a swipe at the old-fashioned way former Boston Symphony Orchestra director James Levine conducts Mozart. During the noon hour Wednesday on WFCR, we'll have for you an engaging corrective to Levine's stodginess*.
And it comes not from some young whippersnapper (batonnerwaver?), but from a conductor almost old enough to have been included in my post in praise of octogenarian maestros.
A musician with a long and distinguished resume, 78-year old Claudio Abbado is best known as Herbert von Karajan's successor at the Berlin Philharmonic, which he conducted from 1989 to 2002. Inheriting one of the world's most sumptuous and powerful orchestras, Abbado maintained the Berlin's reputation during his tenure, while also moving its sound forward into the modern age. Unlike Levine, but like his conducting contemporaries Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Roger Norrington and the late Sir Charles Mackerras, Abbado has kept his ears and mind open to new ideas about performing the great early symphonic works in the spirit of the composers' time. You can hear this in the uneven but underrated Abbado/Berlin set of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies. With their quick tempos, clear textures and sharp accents, this is not your grandfather's Beethoven!
( I do get the occasional complaint from, shall I say, experienced listeners that some of the performances we play of Mozart and Beethoven are too fast. If I know the person well enough to kid around, I usually reply: "The performance isn't too fast. You're listening too slow!")
Abbado's more recent work with the Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart goes even further in the same direction. Most striking in their first set of Mozart Symphonies was the very sparing use of vibrato, the fast wavering of pitch that adds richness to an orchestra's sound, but has too often been thickly slathered on every note in a manner both ahistoric and unaesthetic. Some will disagree, but that's how I hear it. And I'll admit that, exacerbated by the close recording sound of the set, OM's string sound got rather raw at times.
But the new Abbado/Orchestra Mozart performance of the Symphony No. 39 -- wow! What accents! What phrasing! What elegance! Unlike the BSO under Levine, or the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel in their set of Mozart's last three Symphonies, the young musicians of Orchestra Mozart actually sound engaged in what they're doing. Whether this is a performance for the ages is something I'll leave for the ages to decide -- they always do. For today, we have some fresh and vital Mozart to enjoy. What more could we ask for? Well, perhaps for their performance of Symphony No. 40 during the noon hour on Thursday. You got it!
*Despite my strong personal reservations, we've given many broadcasts to Levine's BSO set of Mozart Symphonies. He's an important conductor, the BSO is the BSO, and you may feel otherwise about the performances.