Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies, Vol. 9
04 March 2013
Lynn René Bayley
This was one of those discs that, when I received it for review, I was both excited and dismayed: excited because it was Ádám Fischer conducting Mozart symphonies, and I’ve long been an avid fan of this conductor in virtually everything he’s done, and dismayed because it was marked as “Volume 9” of the symphonies which meant that, if I liked it, I’d have to acquire eight more CDs to catch up on what is obviously going to be a complete set. But then I listened to it and questions kept popping into my head. After that I read the liner notes, where some of my questions were answered while yet others cropped up.
The problem for me, here, is the incredibly fast tempos taken by Fischer. I certainly do like my Mozart symphonies (as opposed to Haydn’s) played in fairly strict time, with little or no rubato, and to my mind the violins should play with a nice “edge” to the tone in order to better emphasize the usually strong rhythms. But what I heard from Fischer in this disc threw me completely off guard. Fischer takes the first movement of the “Paris” Symphony (No. 31) at the astounding clip of half note= 92. Compare that to Jaap ter Linden with the Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, who plays it at half=68. Fischer’s second movement—which, remember, is marked Andante—zips along at a brisk quarter=128, whereas ter Linden takes it at quarter=98, while Fischer’s third movement clocks in at an astounding half=69 (in cut time). Ter Linden takes it at a more moderate half=66. Thus we can see that Fischer appears to believe that Mozart’s symphonies, by and large, are a race to the finish line.
Without spending too much time with headphones on and metronome in hand, a quick comparison of the movements’ timings will show you the differences. For an extra comparison, I also threw in Carlos Kleiber’s performance of the Symphony No. 33 with the Bavarian State Orchestra from 1996:
Fischer - ter Linden - C. Kleiber
1: 6:54 8:10
2: 4:42 5:41
3: 3:31 4:01
1: 6:21 7:21 7:41
2: 4:04 4:37 5:41
3: 2:29 2:39 3:01
4: 8:17 9:26 6:06
1: 7:09 7:32
2: 5:47 6:48
3: 7:01 6:06
Omitted repeats are the reasons why ter Linden’s third movement of Symphony No. 34 and Kleiber’s last movement of No. 33 are shorter than Fischer’s, not quicker tempos. Part of the rationale for Fischer’s approach is found in the second extended essay in the booklet by one Claus Johansen entitled A Few Points About Mozart’s Attitude Towards His Audiences. In this, Johansen explains, among other things, that the Paris orchestra, “one of the two best in Europe, was famous for beginning the fast movements precisely, powerfully and with a clear attack.” Johansen also explains how audiences of that time (1778) “waited” for exciting or explosive passages, applauded them right in the middle of a movement, and sometimes even demanded that they be played over again, all of which Mozart agreed to. The composer also acquiesced to the demand of the manager, a certain Le Gros, who didn’t like the second movement of the Symphony No. 31, finding that “it modulates too much and is too long,” so he demanded a new one. Mozart disagreed but still went ahead and wrote a second version, which, he writes in a letter to his father, he liked “even better.” This recording includes the original second movement as an appendix, and it is indeed a fine piece of music, but once again I believe that Fischer is conducting it too fast, particularly as it clocks in at 1: 09 shorter than the standard version which, as I have shown above, is taken much too fast to begin with.
The first essay by Johansen in the booklet spends a lot of time going over Mozart’s Sense of Key, insisting that he “lived in a time when scholarly treatises were written about the emotions that the individual keys could evoke…For Mozart and his colleagues, D Major could be gentle and loving, but it was first and foremost dashing, easy-flowing and happy. A contemporary English music-lover called it vulgar, and on the whole the 18th-century theorists were not unmixed in their enthusiasm: warlike noise, triumph, joy, march (Schubart 1874), bombastic and noisy (Knecht 1792), festive, gay, tumultuous (Galeazzi, 1796).” All of which reads well and sounds plausible, except for the fact that we have absolutely no idea what pitch Paris was using in that year, month, week, and day of the premiere. Indeed, the whole question of “authentic” Baroque or Classical-era pitch is so complex that one could literally spend a lifetime trying to nail that butterfly to a wall and never succeed. As it happens, Fischer plays all of these symphonies—and thus, I’d imagine, the entire series—in our modern (and once standard even in 17th-century Italy!) pitch of A=440. But research on the Dolmetsch website suggests this is inappropriate. According to a chart assembled there, which is thorough but by no means complete, the pitch observations of a flute used in Berlin in 1775 was A=398, the organ of the palace chapel in Versailles was using A= 395.8 in 1789, Paris was using A=378.8 in 1766, and “Mozart’s pitch” c. 1780 has been determined at A=421.6, all of which place D Major a quarter to three-quarters of a tone flatter than “our” D Major. So how does that affect the way people felt? Were they really happy and elated at a pitch we would recognize as D Major, or an entirely different pitch which they happened to call D Major? Were they happy enough using a flatted D Major, or would they have been a quarter-tone happier at the “real” D Major?
I think you can see that this is a futile and often pointless task. In passing, it should be noted that the ter Linden set of the symphonies plays everything a half-tone lower than our modern standard pitch for consistency’s sake. I’m sure it would have driven ter Linden, the orchestra, and home listeners nuts if they adapted different pitches depending on what city (Paris, Linz, London, whatever) each symphony premiered in and in what particular year. Let’s just assume that these symphonies should have been played a bit flatter than they are and certainly slower.
I’m sure I could have just said in one paragraph that I think Fischer’s and Johansen’s rationale is wrong and thus these performances are too fast and too glib, but then I would have been questioned by musicologist types who always seem to know the answers to everything from “absolute” pitch of the 18th century to quantum physics. As for whether or not such glib performances as these are really authentic, I will leave that to you to decide, but I really do feel that in the past decade and a half tempos have sped up to the point of ridiculousness, particularly in Mozart, where the new tempo for, say, “Deh vieni non tardar” is about the same as “Bei männern,” which is much too fast, and thus everything proportionately is creeping up to the level of a roller coaster ride. Of course, it could be that I’m wrong and Fischer is right as well as Toscanini who said that most of Mozart’s orchestral music is “always beautiful but always the same.” Caveat emptor. I’ve said as much as I think needs to be said.