Disparate Worlds in Mozart’s Last Three Symphonies: Vive la différence!

United StatesUnited States Mozart: Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 27.2.2014 (BJ)

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 39, 40, and 41

This was—praise be!—a very different occasion from the last time Mozart’s last three symphonies were programmed together at Benaroya Hall. Then, the visiting Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was on stage, and under Roberto Abbado’s listless and metronomic direction absolutely nothing of musical consequence happened; I fled at intermission, unwilling to face any more meaningless note-spinning. This time, the Seattle Symphony’s conductor laureate and former music director, Gerard Schwarz, was on the podium, and real Mozart was in the air, as might be expected from the man who for years headed the Mostly Mozart Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center.

It was good to see the orchestra seated once again as it always was when Schwarz was in charge here, with the two violin sections split to his left and right, a layout that is particularly well suited to the classical repertoire. But there was nothing remotely theoretical or puristic about the performances, though the flowing tempos that Schwarz set in the slow movements, and the one-in-a-bar lilt he brought to the minuets, may well have owed something to the influence of the “Historically Informed Performance” movement.

We were treated, not to didactic demonstrations of music theory, but to some wonderfully natural music-making. Gracefully nuanced phrases put any suspicion of stylistic inappropriateness out of mind: if a talented conductor and his players can make this kind of magic now, surely talented musicians could have done so at any period.

The dynamic opening of Symphony No. 39 at the start of the evening proved to be characteristic of all the big tuttis, and timpanist Michael Crusoe’s contribution to them was outstanding in its crispness and judicious weight.

Textures, I have to say, were not always ideally clear, and Schwarz’s omission of a fair number of repeats was regrettable. In the finales of the E-flat-major and G-minor symphonies, omitting second-half repeats deprived us of Mozart’s carefully planned dramatic strokes at the point where the brusque onset of the development section returns unexpectedly and startlingly on the heels of the first hearing of each symphony’s concluding measures.

Everything else about these performances, however, was cogent and impressive. There wasn’t a tempo all evening that seemed even minimally wrong. The finale of No. 41 seemed at first a tad fast, but Schwarz’s conception soon imposed itself, and the movement simply flew, like an effortless machine, yet without any diminution in the grandeur of its conception.

If I had ever been pressed, surely unnecessarily, to declare a preference among these three symphonies, I might have been inclined to rate Nos. 39 and 40, with their profoundly individual thematic styles, above No. 41, with its more formulaic themes. But hearing the three in sequence in these brilliant performances, I realized that No. 41 really does form the crown and capstone of the triptych. The experience made it clear that these masterpieces are as different from each other, and occupy as widely disparate worlds, as any group of Mahler symphonies.

Bernard Jacobson