Otto Tausk Brings Invigorating Style to Mozart’s Last Three Symphonies

CanadaCanada Mozart: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor), Chan Centre, Vancouver, 23.3.2019. (GN)

Otto Tausk and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra © Matthew Baird
Otto Tausk and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra © Matthew Baird

Mozart – Symphony No.39 in E-flat major K543; Symphony No.40 in G minor K550; Symphony No.41 in C major K551, ‘Jupiter’

It is always a challenge for an orchestra to play Mozart’s last three symphonies together, and Otto Tausk and the VSO did a commendable job. With an ensemble of around 40 players, and using a harpsichord and fortepiano as alternating continuos, there was an authentic hue to the performances, even though modern instruments were used. As with Tausk’s Beethoven’s Seventh last year, one noted a genuine attempt at period scale and balance, and the interaction of the divided violins ably fostered clarity of counterpoint and line. In accord with recent thinking, speeds tended to be brisk, with strong rhythmic emphasis and, sometimes, brusque sforzandi and cutting brass. The approach was purposive and clear-headed though not without colour, yielding a consistency throughout. Perhaps the conductor was a little too excitable and rhythmically insistent in the great G minor and ‘Jupiter’ to allow their darker undercurrents or lyrical serenity to register fully, but this was an admirable effort all told.

The orchestra worked hard to put this together: wind volumes were carefully considered, trumpets were firm, and the strings were consistently attentive. The tradition of brisker speeds with modern instruments likely takes its cue from Sir Charles Mackerras, while the selective attempts at period phrasing tie to the even more recent styles of Jos van Immerseel and others. I am not sure how much of an argument there is for using a harpsichord/fortepiano continuo in the late Mozart symphonies. While the practice is historically documented up to 1790, it likely fits best with the composer’s earlier symphonies. Nonetheless, the issue turned out to be largely academic: the positioning of both instruments in the back left of the stage meant they were almost impossible to hear. That said, Trevor Pinnock did have some success with the harpsichord in this repertoire (with a smaller band), and I much enjoyed the way Roy Goodman used to set the continuo right up front when he performed Haydn. I was reminded of some of the latter’s rhythmic robustness here.

Symphony No.39 came off very successfully. It avoided any semblance of being driven and had a good sense of architecture and variety, as well as an awareness of the work’s bubbling delight. The first movement’s allegro was nicely suspended and detailed, displaying both elegance and rhythmic cogency, while the following Andante was communicative at its well-chosen tempo. There were a few stylistic inconsistencies: for example, the detailed string counterpoint had an authentic tight finish to it, but the longer legato string lines (also in the introduction of the first movement) lacked an authentic ‘bulge’ and came off as too smooth and romantic. Another eye-opener might have been the Minuet, which was taken very quickly with emphatic Haydnesque dance accents – and no repeats. It was interesting in this form, both rhythmically and in revealing some wind ornaments I had not heard before, though I missed the delightful ‘chugging’ effect that can be secured at a more moderate tempo. The Finale was uniformly excellent, maintaining a natural momentum, and communicating its bubbling charm and joy. Nothing was rushed here, and the conductor’s fine ear for balance and his ability to secure clarity of the string lines added up well. Tausk brought out some insistent trumpet passages that are seldom heard, and I am sure Beethoven would have loved them.

The last two symphonies are greater challenges, but Tausk maintained the same analytical integrity, clean lines and tonal sinew. These readings were a little more excitable and rhythmically insistent than they might be, but only occasionally would I deem them driven. (A lot of authentic treatments do push these works pretty hard now.) The opening allegro of Symphony No.40 was certainly purposive (a little fleet for all its G minor intimations to register), but the balance and energy were estimable, save a few abrupt sforzandi that the conductor might want back. However, the Andante did not have the same concentration as its predecessor: it lacked flow and a deeper sensitivity. Part of the problem might have been the disciplined authentic phrasing in both strings and winds: neither found as much lyrical expansion as they might, leaving a certain greyness in the expression. The Minuet was given the brisk, accented treatment we’re now used to – interesting enough – though here I felt the need for more contemplative breadth, and probably some repeats, too. The Finale exhibited credible design, though this is where the dramatic eagerness of the conductor could be noticed. Rather than increasing intensity gradually as the movement progressed, Tausk instated a high temperature right from the outset, and never let down. I doubt this movement should end up with a propelled, militaristic feel; there is a fluidity and lyrical pulse in Mozart that is unique, and it is more the complex enigma of this movement, and the symphony as a whole, that needs to be exposed at the end.

A more militaristic feeling is probably appropriate to the ‘Jupiter’, written in the magisterial key of C major and, in many ways, having the full flavour of a trumpet-and-drums symphony. Tausk gave a disciplined, energetic reading with good scale and balance, though the timpani were sometimes too strong in both the first and last movements. Again, the strings and winds might have had more expressive reach in the middle movements: the beauty and serenity of the Andante should surely open out more naturally, while the ‘floating’ strings at the opening of the Allegretto likewise might have found greater suspension and lyrical grace. Yet the maestro sustained the line of the complex finale very well, his rhythmic energy and contrapuntal rigour adding up to a powerful statement. There was possibly less room for moments of whimsy and charm, but why shouldn’t a new music director be a little more intense and excited in playing this great work for the first time with his new audience? Perhaps the sinewy strength of the work stood out more than its transcendent grandness but, by the end, no one in attendance could doubt the surpassing genius enshrined in this Everest of the repertoire.

Otto Tausk showed genuine fortitude in thinking out these three masterpieces on his own terms and christening his own brand of Mozart style and orchestration. It was an impressive initial foray: a fine mixture of clarity, cohesion and rhythmic strength that has clear potential for development. The conductor also elicited one of the most integrated responses from the orchestra thus far. After decades of ‘big band’ Mozart in the city, witnessing this more authentic scale was refreshing.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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