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Month of Mozart

The 20 Essential Mozart Recordings

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Mozart is arguably the most-recorded composer in the classical canon, with an estimated 10,000 recordings in print. This makes building a Mozart library a particularly daunting task. But we're here to give you a hand.

Every weekday this Month of Mozart, we'll unveil a new installment here in a survey of the 20 essential Mozart recordings.  Discuss and debate our choices and share your own favorites in the comments box below!


21. "Great Mass" in C Minor

  • Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists
  • John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
  • Sylvia McNair (sop) Diana Montague (mez) Anthony Rolfe Johnson (ten) Cornelius Hauptmann (bass)
  • Philips
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

Mozart's "Great Mass" in C minor features a mixture of styles, from the operatic to the ecclesiastical, a combination that can confound more inexperienced conductors. But in this 1986 recording, John Eliot Gardiner brings a grand, expansive baroque style to the score, abetted by the focused playing of the EBS and some prominent soloists headed by Sylvia McNair (bringing a pure, cool soprano). Some may wish for the sound of a boys’ choir rather than a mixed chorus with women’s voices (to better blend with the period instruments) but no matter, the overall results are among the most convincing around. A fine conclusion to our month-long survey.

20. Requiem, K. 626

  • Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
  • Marie Arnet, Anna Stéphany, Andrew Kennedy, and Darren Jeffery
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

"Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one's life," Colin Davis once mused. To emphasize the point he chose to conduct Mozart's Requiem at his 80th birthday concert. Davis died in April and left behind three recordings of the Requiem made throughout this career, including this live version recorded at the Barbican. Making no pretensions to period scale or style, it is large-scale all the way, opting for full force and drama, with wide dynamics and richly colorful choral singing. A couple shaky moments aside, the soloists are all fine and the LSO projects a full, rich sonority, particularly in the Sanctus and Confutatis maledictis.

19. Don Giovanni

  • Eberhard Wachter (Don Giovanni), Joan Sutherland (Donna Anna), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Donna Elvira), Graziella Sciutti (Zerlina), Luigi Alva (Don Ottavio), Giuseppe Taddei (Leporello), Piero Cappuccilli (Masetto), Gottlob Frick (Commendatore)
  • Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor
  • EMI
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

This was one of a string of now classic opera recordings that were masterminded by the legendary record producer Walter Legge in the late 1950s and early 60s (also see The Magic Flute below). The cast he assembled in 1959 for Mozart's dark comedy remains unbeatable, while in Carlo Maria Giulini he found the ideal conductor. Baritone Eberhard Wachter brings out all the nasty charm in the role; a young Joan Sutherland combines a gleaming tone and theatricality as Donna Anna. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is a fantastic Donna Elvira. The harpsichord for the recitatives may sound anachronistic to today's ears but the digitally remastered sound makes you forget it's more than 50 years old.


18. Symphonies Nos. 35, 40 and 41

We brought you one collection of Mozart’s late symphonies earlier in the month but for such definitive works, it's hard to choose just one. So along with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s late 1960s accounts, there’s another release from two decades later we wholeheartedly enjoy. It features the characteristically jaunty, immaculately played performances from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner.

 

17. Symphonies Nos. 31, 36 and 38

Monday Theme: Mozart’s Travels: Mozart’s three city symphonies offer glimpses of stages in his development as a symphonist and in this 1989 recording, Jane Glover and the London Mozart Players serve up polished, nuanced performances of each. Each symphony offers a snapshot of Mozart’s life at a given point in time: he wrote the brightly ceremonial Symphony No. 36 “Linz” while on a four-day stopover in the Austrian town. The Symphony No. 31 “Paris” was composed during an unsuccessful job-hunting sojourn in the French capital; it is the first of Mozart’s symphonies to include a clarinet. The “Prague” Symphony (No. 38) is in three movements and includes a boisterous finale that suggests a certain Bohemian atmosphere.

 

16. Clarinet Concerto/”Kegelstatt” Trio

  • Martin Fröst, clarinet
  • German Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Bremen
  • Leif Ove Andsnes, piano/Antoine Tamestit, viola
  • Available at Arkivmusic

Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst plays the Clarinet Concerto on a basset clarinet, an instrument similar to the soprano clarinet but with a few extra keys to hit the lower notes. Mozart’s friend Anton Stadler invented the instrument; the composer wrote his Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet for its plush, dark-hued sonority. Frost’s performance, released this fall in BIS, has all of the suave phrasing, ethereal lightness and fluid dexterity the piece requires. No less enjoyable is the less familiar trio for clarinet, viola and piano, Kegelstatt, performed here with violist Antoine Tamestit and Leif Ove Andsnes on piano.

 

15. Piano Quartets

Mozart ventured into relatively uncharted territory with his piano quartets, a genre that would not gain popularity for many years after his death. But the two he wrote were each highly accomplished, one being in a dark G minor and the other in sunny E-flat major. A recording by pianist Paul Lewis and the Leopold String Trio (bearing the name of Mozart's father), emphasizes the radiance and intimacy of these domestic works.

 

14. The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute discography is a rich one. There was Thomas Beecham's prewar version from Berlin, early-LP accounts from Herbert von Karajan and Karl Bohm, a recent version by René Jacobs, and many others. Otto Klemperer led a now-classic 1964 version with luxury casting from top to bottom: Gundula Janowitz as Pamina, Nicolai Gedda as Tamino, Walter Berry as Papageno, Lucia Popp as the Queen of the Night, Gottlob Frick as Sarastro. Even the smaller roles are cast from strength – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings the First Lady. Klemperer takes his interpretive cue from the music's Masonic solemnity, but wit and humanity are here, too. EMI producer Walter Legge’s remastered sound is very good and London's Philharmonia Orchestra plays with clarity and style.

13. The Violin Concertos

The German violinist Julia Fischer was 27 when she released this set of Mozart’s violin concertos and yet it avoids the blandness that one might fear from a youngish violinist traversing a cornerstone of the classical violin repertoire. The set (if you're still in the CD age) contains three CDs plus a DVD containing video from the recording sessions. There are the five concertos plus several other works including the Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E flat, K.364. Leading the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra is the Russian conductor Yakov Kreizberg, who tragically died later that year at age 51 after a long illness.

 

12. The “Haydn” Quartets

Monday's Theme: Mozart's Contemporaries: Mozart's "Haydn" quartets – Nos. 14-19 of the composer’s 23 total – are a summit of the pre-Beethoven repertoire. Especially the famous “Hunt” and “Dissonance” quartets are an example of how the composer expanded the dimensions and expressive boundaries of what he inherited from his teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn. The Emerson completed this set in 1991, when the music world was marking the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death in a big way, and the Emersons were in their early prime. Check out the crisp clarity of the finale of the “Hunt” or the supple opening of No. 18 K. to get a sense of the quartet’s tonal warmth and polish.

 

11.  Sinfonia Concertante K. 364

In the Sinfonia Concertante K. 364, Mozart's incomparable intertwining of the violin and viola threads, David Oistrakh and his son Igor assume the solo roles while the Berlin Philharmonic provides the orchestral support. Senior Oistrakh was one of the great violinists of the 20th century, feted in the Soviet Union and eventually, the West. With his son, the playing is absolutely precise, refined and mellow. The piece itself has its own father-and-son back-story: In Mannheim, February 17, 1779, Mozart wrote to his father, who was vexed at Wolfgang’s resistance to his wishes that his son leave Mannheim for Paris: "The moment you do not trust me I shall distrust myself. The time is past, it is true, when I used to stand on the bench, sing nonsense words, and kiss the tip of your nose.; but have I therefore shown laxity in respect, love and obedience? I say no more."

 

10. Piano Sonatas (K. 280-283)

Long received opinion holds that generally Mozart's sonatas are not among his more memorable works. Some sound like occasional pieces, others like exercises in counterpoint. And while they’re not as adventurous as Beethoven’s sonatas, in the right hands, they can be pleasing in their own terms. Mitsuko Uchida has built her career on Mozart more than any other composer and she knows that tone is everything in performance. The Japan-born, Vienna-trained pianist brings a combination of delicacy and elegance as well as feeling and wit to the four early works composed when Mozart was just 18.

9. The Marriage of Figaro

  • Concerto Koln
  • Rene Jacobs conducting Lorenzo Regazzo, Patrizia Ciofi, Simon Keenlyside, Veronique Gens and Angelika Kirchschlager
  • Harmonia Mundi
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

In his elegant program notes to The Marriage of Figaro, conductor Rene Jacobs suggests that period instruments and techniques (sharp attacks, fast tempos, deliberate balances) bring out a “dangerous” quality so long drowned in the heavy, super legato playing of the older Romantic School. Dangerous is debatable. But Jacob's performance on this Grammy-nominated Harmonia Mundi recording with the 36-piece Concerto Koln is gloriously well played and sung. Recorded in 2003 in Cologne, it features Simon Keenlyside, Veronique Gens, Patrizia Ciofi, Lorenzo Regazzo and Angelika Kirschlager. There's no shortage of top competitors out there, including versions for Decca led by Georg Solti and Erich Kleiber, but this one ranks among the freshest.

 

8. Mozart Horn Concertos

  • Period version: Lowell Greer, horn; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan, conductor
  • Harmonia Mundi
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

Horn virtuoso Lowell Greer, conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra joined forces in the late 1980s for a set of the joyous Mozart horn concertos, plus two rondos (K. 371 and K. 514) for horn and orchestra. There is a unique charm in the sound texture of old instruments, nicely captured in these recordings. To be sure, it’s the natural (valveless) horn is a bit of an acquired taste and some might prefer a modern version like Barry Tuckwell’s account. But Greer manages to tame this raucous instrument and draw plenty of tone and color from it along the way. (Alternate Modern Version: Barry Tuckwell, horn, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.)

 

7. Piano Concerto No. 17/Quintet for Piano and Winds

  • Mitsuko Uchida, piano
  • English Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate, conductor
  • Philips
  • More details

Monday's Theme: 'Mozart's Likes.' Although it’s not among of Mozart’s most celebrated works, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452 deserves its place on any ranking because, as Erik Smith says in the liner notes to this album, it played "a key role" in developing the style of his last years in Vienna and it is one of his most perfect works for piano and other instruments. Like other recordings in Mitsuko Uchida's Mozart series of the 1980s, this one has a strong emotional impact and visceral sense of drama. Philips pairs the Quintet with the Concerto K. 453, a logical solution, as the two Mozart works were created so closely together in time, and the piano part in the quintet is virtually of concerto dimensions.

 

6. Chamber Music: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik/Divertimento K. 136/A Musical Joke

Friday's Theme: Mozart in his own words: Recorded between 1981 and 1989, these performances of the composer's chamber works are prime Academy and prime Marriner: stylish, witty, technically secure. The orchestra and conductor apply the light touch without trivializing the material.


5. The Complete Piano Concertos

  • Piano Concertos Nos. 1–6, 8, 9, 11–27. Rondos: in D; in A
  • Murray Perahia, piano and conductor; English Chamber Orchestra
  • Sony
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

During the 1970s and early '80s, Murray Perahia recorded a complete set of Mozart's 27 piano concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. The set is among his biggest achievements and suites his style naturally: he's long been attuned to the lyrical flow of Mozart, Chopin and Schumann; less so to Beethoven's abruptness and complex musical architecture. He's well supported by the English Chamber Orchestra and Radu Lupu joins him for the concertos for two and three pianos, the latter work presented in Mozart's arrangement for two keyboards. This set has been repackaged and remastered at least twice in the past decade. Sony's slim-line packaging is devoid of liner notes, but, at roughly $2 per disc, the price is hard to beat.

 

4. Cosi Fan Tutte  

  • Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Alfredo Krauss, Giuseppe Tadde
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Karl Bohm
  • EMI
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

There are many versions of this, the most ambivalent and disturbing of Mozart's three Da Ponte comedies. You couldn’t ask for a more Viennese interpretation than a 1962 recording featuring a close-knit vocal team of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Alfredo Krauss and Giuseppe Taddei as the four young lovers. Karl Bohm offers spacious, gracious conducting with an intense inner vitality. By contrast, John Eliot Gardner and the English Baroque Soloists came along in the mid 1990s with a version for the Archiv label that was decidedly lean and mean. It features Amanda Roocroft, Rosa Mannion, Rainer Trost and Rodney Gilfry. Hear the two versions for a fascinating study in interpretive contrasts.

3. The Late Symphonies

Tuesday's Theme: The Symphonies: It took Mozart practice to write consequential works for symphony orchestra. Of his 41 finished symphonies (with some additional bits and sketches), the early ones are small, mostly juvenile studies. Slightly later ones adhere almost too closely to the early templates used by Haydn and others. But near the end of his life, Mozart found his symphonic “voice,” beginning with No. 35 and continuing with his three final symphonies (nos. 39-41). There are some fine recordings of these formally-organized works, with among the best by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. They have all of the colors of a big modern orchestra with a flexibility one doesn’t always associate with the rigorous and autocratic Szell. And don’t be dissuaded by the dull packaging – the price is also very favorable.

2. Mozart Early Symphonies

Monday's Theme: Mozart and His World: The Academy of Ancient Music launched its complete cycle of the Mozart symphonies in the late 1970s, becoming the first major period-instrument ensemble to venture beyond the Baroque and into Classical territory. It was a bold move, and not without controversy: it was inevitable that Beethoven would be next. Hogwood used a small orchestra of 35 players to deliver performances that were lively and full of spirit yet also imbued with a sense of gravity and heft. The first recordings were up there with Luciano Pavarotti on the Billboard charts during the 1980s. A full, 19-CD reissue came out in 1997 and it has just been re-released again in a package that also contains the composer’s overtures and serenades. Grab a download of the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 above.

1. The Overtures

  • Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Zurich Opera Mozart Orchestra, Zurich Opera House Orchestra, Concentus musicus Wien 
  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor
  • Available at Arkivmusic.com

Many of Mozart's overtures are familiar to us only on the strength of their overtures. The composer moved the opera overture beyond the old tripartite sinfonia form (which had little to do with the opera) and replaced it with a single-movement prelude that sets up the major themes, characters and dramatic moments that follow. Nikolaus Harnoncourt released a set of these in 1994, in which he leads four different top European orchestras including the Royal Concertgebouw, Zurich Opera Mozart Orchestra and Concentus musicus Wien. In our faster-is-better age of period-instrument playing, these versions take it down a notch, but the weightiness feels fuller and more bass-oriented. Check out the colorful wind and percussion playing in the Overture to the "exotic" portions of the Abduction from the Seraglio.

*Not into Facebook? The download will be included in this week's WQXR E-Newsletter.