Thursday, March 12, 2009

Grace notes

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Around this time last year, I wrote about Mozart as "the poet of Spring" among composers, for his music's fluid transition among widely varying moods, like the winds of the season. Recently I've been gratified to acquire a two-CD set of exhilarating performances of Mozart's last four symphonies. It was released last year by Linn Records, and features the Scottish Chamber Orchestra led by Sir Charles Mackerras.

Mackerras has long been one of my favorite conductors for just about anything he turns his attention to. He isn't particularly a "big name" conductor, but that is probably because he lacks the facility or motivation for self-promotion of, for instance, a Bernstein or Karajan. He certainly is respected in the business, having done guest appearances on the podium with many of the world's top orchestras.

Sir Charles recorded the Mozart symphonies before, for Telarc in the '80s, and I still have a couple of those discs. Good as they are, this new release is in my perception a greater achievement.

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It's always hard to define or describe something as subjective as a musical interpretation, but I'll try. Mackerras's way with these symphonies has the structural integrity of Otto Klemperer — the architecture is very clear — but with an added halo of warmth. (That may not be entirely fair to Klemperer, because of the difference in recording quality. Possibly if we could hear Klemperer's performances in excellent modern sound engineering, they would have more "bloom.")

Listening to this set, it's hard to doubt that Mackerras not only knows the scores thoroughly, which could go without saying, but that he has formed his own view of the musical meaning of every measure. Not only are the balances superb (such transparency!), but many phrases that never especially impressed me before yield up their secrets. Again and again listening to these readings, I found myself thinking, "Oh, so that's what that's about."

Sir Charles has an amazing gift for getting orchestras to characterize the music, not just play the notes. And while it's not unusual for other conductors to come up with bizarre interpretations of Mozart's tempo indications, here they seem to me spot on. Where Mozart says Andante ("walking"), we get Andante, not an Adagio or an Allegretto. There is, though, some flexibility of pulse within movements; I don't know whether they are indicated in the score or they are artistic choices, but they feel right.

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Linn Records, based in Glasgow, is an offshoot of Linn, the maker of audiophile components. They first became famous for well-regarded turntables some 25 years ago, but they now offer a full line of high-end audio products. And boy do they know something about recording.

The SACD layer of these hybrid discs is a wonder. (I assume it's 5.1 channels; my system is five channels, lacking a subwoofer, but I sure didn't miss one, the bass being tight and solid through my front left and right Focal 705V speakers.) The space of the recording venue, listed as Glasgow City Halls, is perfectly captured, as are the instruments. I prefer a slightly less reverberant ambience, but that's a matter of taste, and the reverb doesn't smear the lines.

This is a remarkably natural recording, the opposite of that canned "mixing board" sound that you often hear on even releases from major classical labels … not that many of those are still with us. I guess I mean you, Deutsche Grammophon.

There are still superlative performances that can stand up to any in the past, and so much the better when recordings do them justice.
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3/13 I have corrected a few misstatements that resulted from my memory playing tricks on me, and which were kindly pointed out by a commenter.

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3 comments:

Dennis Mangan said...

Sounds like something I need. Mackerras and his Scots are indeed a fine group.

Shos Ten said...

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (ex-Scottish National Orchestra, ex-ex Scottish Orchestra) was founded in 1891 and past Principal Conductors have included Sir Alexander Gibson and Neeme Jarvi (now Stephane Deneve).

Although the Scottish National Orchestra was at one time also the orchestra for Scottish Opera, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (founded 1974) has always been a completely seperate orchestra. Sir Charles Mackerras is Conductor Laureate of the SCO, he has never been Music Director of the RSNO/SCO.

Scottish Opera now have their own orchestra, the Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Who are not to be confused with the Scottish Ballet Orchestra. Nor the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra!

The Scots enjoy their orchestral music!

Rick Darby said...

Shos Ten,

Thanks for the clarification. In any case, the SCO is one terrific ensemble, and a credit to Scotland.