Sure, we admire the fact that the Mostly Mozart Festival has branched out in recent years beyond its namesake composer to include everything from early music to freshly-minted works. But sometimes, there’s no better way to experience Mozart's sheer inventiveness, wit and grace than to hear his symphonies collected in one place. The Boston Symphony Orchestra satisfies that craving with a 2-CD set of his Symphonies Nos. 14, 18, 20, 39, and 41, just released on its house label. It's this week’s Full Rotation.
The performances on this set were all taken from concerts in February 2009, when a then-healthy James Levine conducted 12 of Mozart's 41 symphonies spread over three programs. Of course, Mozart’s late symphonies are staples of modern musical life, coded into the DNA of most orchestras. But Levine, who has previously recorded all the symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, intends to present a fuller picture of the composer by going from near beginning to end.
The earliest symphonies in this sampler--Nos. 14 and 18--were written when the composer was in his mid teens. Levine and the orchestra seem to take these pieces on their own terms, offering up their considerable charms but not asking them to be more profound than they are. The latter work shows Mozart exploring new textures with the addition of four horns to the chamber orchestration.
In all five of the performances, Levine shows a considerable grasp of the music’s architecture; the slow movements are poignant but never drag, and each finale builds up considerable energy, with brisk tempos and energized rhythms. The Bostonians keep the textures of Nos. 39 and 41 crisp and transparent, exposing the inner workings of Mozart’s densest counterpoint.
The sound of these performances is bright and spacious, with just a bit of that live concert atmosphere. At the Boston Symphony digital store, the recordings are available for download in four audio formats (priced according to the format). You can also find this set in some of the standard places including iTunes and Amazon.com.
Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 14, 18, 20, 39, and 41
Boston Symphony Orchestra; James Levine, conductor