Mozart: Three Salzburg symphonies, nos. 21, 27, 34

Haydn Sinfonietta Wien, Manfred Huss
67:20
BIS-2218 CD

My experience with this disc is a cautionary tale. I first listened to K 199 in G (No. 27) and K 338 in C (No 34) in relaxed mood rather than critical mode late one evening, finding my overall impression of the performances was not particularly sympathetic. There appeared to be an overall lack of charm and affection, with quicker tempos often sounding too hard driven. Listening critically in the cold light of day with scores to hand produced quite a different impression. Yes, there are times when I still find a movement over pressed – the last movement of K 134 in A (No. 21) is a case in point – but overall there are positives that for me certainly cast the performances in a new light.

Before investigating these positive qualities, a few observations regarding the works. The earliest, K 134 dates from the summer of 1772, is scored for a pairs of flutes and horns, and strings. As befits its key, the flute-inflected music bathes in the warm glow of a pastoral dawn or in its Minuet a bucolic country-dance. K 199 was written in the spring of the following year and has the same scoring but quite a different character. At is heart is a deliciously delicate Andantino grazioso, the scoring for muted violins, pizzicato violas and bass creating a soft bed that allows the flutes to weave nocturnal magic. K 338, the last symphony Mozart wrote before leaving Salzburg for Vienna, is conceived on a different scale altogether. Composed in 1780, it features the full festive scoring including trumpets and timpani associated with the key of C. As is often the case, the missing minuet is replaced with the Minuetto, K 409, which Manfred Huss’ note argues might have been Mozart’s intention, though Neal Zaslaw (in his book on the symphonies) argues against the theory, convincingly in my view given that the Minuetto calls for two flutes, not included in the symphony’s scoring. It is perhaps worth noting at this point that Huss observes every repeat and that he employs a fortepiano continuo in the C-major Symphony. I could not detect any continuo in the two earlier symphonies and the use of fortepiano (rather than harpsichord) in K 338 seems to me highly questionable.

So what changed my mind about the performances? I think above all it is Huss’ obviously superb ear for balance and texture, enabling a clear distinction between first and second violins, and giving unusual clarity to the viola line. In addition I would add the acute observation of dynamics and accent markings that allows, for example, the difference between Mozart’s wedge and dotted accents to be heard. I’ve already mentioned the entrancing sound world of the Andantino of K134, its spell unquestionably in part created by the exquisite balance achieved by Huss, aided it must be added by splendid playing, an encomium that also serves for the remainder of the CD. Also impressive is the way in which the conductor leaves us in no doubt that with K 344 Mozart was leaving behind the Italianate galant style of so many of the early symphonies. From the outset this is a big, bold performance, the grandeur and scale of the opening coming as quite a shock after the earlier symphonies. It’s a performance full of strength and a muscular energy that reminds us that the rich grandeur of Idomeneo  was only months ahead. The recording, made in two different locations, enhances the benefits of Huss’ fine ear with sound of forensic clarity.

Brian Robins

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