Il Pomo d’Oro directed from the fortepiano by Maxim Emelyanychev
This is the first in what is planned to be a long-term project to record all the Mozart symphonies, with the addition to each volume of what Maxim Emelyanychev calls in his introductory note a ‘sort of musical hors d’oeuvre’. In the case of the present issue that is the Piano Concerto in A, K488, which may cause more than a few eyebrows to rise describing it in such terms. As the CDs title suggests the symphonies included here are Mozart’s very first work in the form, Symphony No 1 in E flat, K16, composed in London at the age of eight in 1764, and the last, No 41 in C (‘Jupiter’), K551, composed in Vienna in 1788. It’s quite a thought-provoking idea since it reminds us of the huge journey taken by the symphony in the hands of Haydn and Mozart, who between them took the form from being a modest three-part introduction to an Italian opera or other dramatic work to the status of magnificent concert works such as Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies or the great trilogy with which Mozart signed off from the genre, No’s 39 to 41. K16 is indeed a classic example of the genre’s sources, a charming work in only three brief movements, its relationship to dramatic works apparent in the contrasts the young Mozart provides right from the opening bars, a commanding ‘call to attention’ immediately relaxing into a gentle, quiet legato response.
Before looking at any specific examples, let’s try to establish a few general parameters that will presumably also set the scene for future issues. I think the first, and perhaps surprising thing, to say is that these are thoroughly conservative performances. That may sound odd but Il Pomo d’Oro, of which Emelyanychev is chief conductor, is more likely to be found in the opera house (often figuratively), where it has at times been involved with some radical performances and productions. With the odd arguable exception (the final Allegro assai of the concerto is a little fast for my taste, the central Andante of K16 a little slow) tempos throughout are sensible, while the orchestral playing and balance are excellent throughout. Every repeat is taken, an admirable policy that here in particular allows the great contrapuntal coda of the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony to crown the immense peroration of the movement with exceptional power. For a period-instrument performance, the solo playing of the concerto is unusually conservative as to ornamentation, with only very modest embellishments made in the central Andante and no suggestion of the piano playing in ritornelli. Incidentally, the piano played by Emelyanychev is a fine copy of a Conrad Graf of 1823. There is no suggestion of a continuo in the symphonies, which one would have expected at least in the early symphony.
Emelyanychev’s playing of the concerto is fluent, with excellently articulated finger-work in the outer movements and considerable sensitivity in the Andante, which features some lovely piano string playing complemented by the beautifully tuned playing of the composer’s glorious wind ensemble writing. At times I did wonder if K16 was a little prosaic, the last thing expected from these performers, but the ‘Jupiter’ is a splendidly bold performance, with its many contrapuntal elements well brought out. Little bits of individuality include the hint of tympani drum rolls (instead of Mozart’s single beats) in the Minuet. In the Andante Cantabile (ii) the yearning motif that pervades is given a rare and ineffable sadness, while the pain that for me is never far from the surface is inflected with even greater emotion in the development. The great finale is given a thrilling drive, but not at the expense of the movement’s inherent nobility and sense of taking the listener on an enthralling, unpredictable journey that will reach its destination only in the contrapuntal wizardry of the coda.
In sum, these are highly satisfying performances that auger well for the long traversal ahead. If not startlingly revelatory, emulation of this standard will ensure Emelyanychev’s performances will make for a fine library of the symphonies for anyone choosing to collect them.