Right here on ionarts* I have finally published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. A lazy, unedited nightmare of a book that preys on ignorant dunces to read it with delight, misinforming then along the way. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three. (* Intended for Forbes.com, but since Paul Johnson is also a Forbes.com contributor, the editors informed me of the site policy never to have fellow contributors review each other's work, which makes good sense, actually.)
A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography
The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.
“The earliest first-class Mozart symphony”, writes Paul Johnson, “when he is clearly on his own in every respect, is K.110 in G, No.12, written in Salzburg in 1771… This is the first recognizable Mozart symphony, in four movements, using sonata style, and with a balanced orchestra. Thirty more symphonies followed over the next twenty years—all of them good but some much better than others and six among the best ever written. Two that deserve to be played more often are K.132 in E-flat, written in Salzburg in 1772, and K.134 in A, both strong, purposeful and
melodious [sic]. His first “dark” symphony, in G minor (K.183), showed how deeply Mozart, by then twenty-seven [sic], could feel, but it was followed by one in A (K.201), which contains more jokes and burlesque passages than, I think, any other work of his.” The six ‘greatest’ Johnson refers to are Mozart’s last six.
Mozart, Symphonies 21-41,
RCO, Josef Krips
Decca 475 8473
For Nos. 35 and 36, the “Haffner” and “Linz”, I love the Prague Philharmonia’s recording, reviewed here: Dip Your Ears, No.46, and for the remaining four “Great” symphonies, 39-41, Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are the team to have on one’s side.
And, despite the just-mentioned caveat, I would be remiss to bring up and recommend the set of all the mature Mozart symphonies with Josef Krips and the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. That’s a far cry from modern Mozart sensibilities, you might think, what with small bands crowding out the philharmonic dinosaurs on the classical planes. But there roamed agile Mozart-creatures even back then. In fact, you won’t find Mozart anywhere else that is played with such lightness, radiating joy, and so being the epitome of musical tip-toeing… for all the old-world feel about it. (Also mentioned at some length here: Why Haydn Should Be Mandatory.) Every time I put this on, unlike just about any other Mozart recording from before 1990 (except Hogwood), I am amazed how its perfection still holds up. It’s really a mandatory Mozart purchase and conveniently covers not just the ‘great’ symphonies but also K.134, 183, 201 and K.297. The latter is also singled by Johnson as the “first truly famous symphony… delightful and powerful… [but] he had great difficulty with the orchestra. Normally he could cajole the most recalcitrant band into compliance even when still quite young, but the rehearsal was a disaster. At the end of it, Mozart prayed fervently to God, promising him a Rosary if the actual performance went well. In fact it went splendidly, for not even French players could resist Mozart for long [sic], and Mozart duly paid his debt to God.” You can just see Johnson love this: Prove that God exists, that God loves Mozart, and a crack at the French in the bargain. Trifecta!
Johnson devotes a chapter (of just five) to opera, but rightly so. It is also the one chapter that has some insight to it, although it is not devoid of nonsense or his usual conjecture: “My belief is that [Mozart] got more simple pleasure writing [Die Zauberflöte] than from any other major work, except possibly the Sinfonia Concertante.” He give the three Da Ponte, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito (tepidly), and Idomeneo some space; even The Abduction from the Seraglio gets discussed, although he latter dismisses it as “the harem opera”.
From the opening dropping octaves to the turbulent, explosive, light-stepped final tutti: “Fortunato l’uom Che Prende”, René Jacobs’ Così fan tutte is (still!) the most vigorous, vital recording of this opera; a staggering masterpiece supported with a cast of then-unknowns most of whom became all wildly famous singers in their own right. Start here and be enchanted. When René Jacobs’ recording of Le nozze di Figaro came out, it immediately jumped to the top my “Best Recordings of 2004” list. Jacobs's spritely account is now the number one among recorded Marriages in a field of strong competition and the use of the fortepiano in the recitatives gives these otherwise often dry and tedious passages a luscious, full sound that actually makes you want to hear them.
René Jacobs’ Don Giovanni, created for a 2006 staged production at the Innsbruck Early Music Festival (which was instrumental in making these opera recordings of Jacobs’ possible), is perhaps the least easy and obvious choices among the four where the nod goes to Jacobs. The singers are very good, if not as dramatically good as in Così or Le nozze or some classic Don Giovanni recordings. What pushes it over the edge is the superb playing of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and, again, the recitatives which are alive and wild and go from chore to bonus. If the great Salzburg production of Claus Guth’s weren’t conducted on DVD by the drab Bertrand de Billy but by Yannick Nézet-Séguin as in the year I saw it, that would be my first choice. The adventurous-minded should seek out the film version “Juan”, a masterpiece that employs much of the Guth staging and goes still further with the material to recast it a modern crime drama. It was among my Best Recordings of 2013 choices. Paul Johnson provides an wonderfully insightful statement—just about the only one in his “Mozart – A Life”—when he writes: “The notion of the irresistible force (Giovanni) crashing into an immovable stone object (Commendatore) is a glorious one, well spelled out by some of the best music Mozart ever wrote.” Holten spells it out on film, literally, in a way that has to be seen by anyone with half an open mind.
A non-Jacobs recording could easily have been recommended for The Magic Flute. I, for one, am still partial to the early, stately, great sounding 1955 Karl Böhm Decca recording (especially with Walter Berry’s Papageno and Kurt Böhme’s Sarastro) which cuts all the dialogue. But if the dialogue isn’t an impediment to enjoying this opera (too often it is, even for German-speakers), this is the version to have. It takes the dialogues (absolutely complete) and turns them into an advantage, as they help to differently weigh the characters. Especially Pamina is better off. The band of young singers is terrific, quasi-improvised embellishments and all. Tastefully applied sound effects turn the opera into an audio-drama… and the music, too, is alive with drama. This is classic René Jacobs at his best, re-imagining a masterpiece to reveal so much more to us than we thought was in it!
Recorded live in 1990, this recording of the complete Idomeneo catches John Eliot Gardiner’s cast at the height of its powers, and orchestra and chorus in top form. The dynamism Gardiner brought wasn’t matched until Adam Fischer and René Jacobs threw their respective Ideomeno-hats in the ring, and while they can certainly challenge, they can’t outright surpass this modern classic.
DVDs are not usually a first choice in a list concerning itself with audio recordings. But Harnoncourt’s performance of La Clemenza di Tito and his cast are mind-bogglingly good and Martin Kušej’s production is, pace the traditionalists, such a stroke of genius (aided by his actresses, especially by Vesselina Kasarova, Dortothea Röschmann, and the young Elīna Garanča) that it makes dramatically compelling sense out of the otherwise hard-to-pull-off libretto. The alternatives would be the diverting and surprisingly virile Karl Böhm recording (albeit with several caveats, including Peter Schreier’s approximation of Italian) or, closer to Harnoncourt in spirit, if not tempi, Charles Mackerras’s recording. (Discussed in detail here: La Clemenza di Tito: Your Charitable Mood Is Welcome and here: La Clemenze di Titi.)
Sacred Music: Masses
For all his concern with Mozart’s religious side, the sacred works are getting surprisingly little time in Johnson’s book. One exception is the “offertory chant or motet Ave Verum Corpus (K.618). The feast celebrates the ultra-Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, and the work is now played on the feast in every Catholic church whose choir is up to it. It was certainly played at my boarding school in the choir in which I served every year until my last, when I commanded the Sovereign’s Escort of the Officer’s Training Corps. We presented arms and gave the royal salute with fixed bayonets at the consecration of the Host, immediately after the Ave Verum was sung. It would not happen now, I suppose, but in those days, the early 1940s, we were fighting in a world war, and people took religion seriously. Mozart’s little piece is only forty-six bars long, but is a masterpiece of calm concision and inspired reverence.”
Everyone does the Ave Verum Corpus, but Frans Brüggen’s crew does it especially well and couples it with the Coronation Mass that also gets mention from Johnson, albeit a bit brief: “The two years 1779 and 1780 were important and productive… He composed the magical Sinfonia Concertante, a superb Mass in C Major (K.317), a concerto for the piano (K.365), sonatas for organ and orchestra (K.328-29), and three first-class symphonies (K.318, 319, and 338).” If that’s enough to merit inclusion in this discography, the work itself is.
Quite different from Brüggen’s approach is Leonard Bernstein’s, but his “Great Mass” is such a buoyant, jaunty, overwhelming onslaught of musical joy, that concerns about nuance are blown to the wind. Taken live from a performance at the parish church (Stiftsbasilika) in Waldsassen, it is still an overwhelmingly powerful, beautifully sung account of that work and easily recommendable. But since Paul Johnson seems to think that the Great Mass was finished (see the book review), let’s also include a performing version that goes beyond making a performance of the extant material possible (as does the 1989 Franz Beyer edition that Bernstein uses), but aims at reconstructing what might have been.
Sacred Music: Requiem
The Requiem elicits the following from Johnson: “As Mozart had discussed the Requiem with Süssmayr through-out its period of gestation, and as he was in any case thoroughly familiar with Mozart’s methods of work, we may be confident that the Requiem as we have it is to all intents Mozart’s work. What convinces me of this is, not least, its unusual, unexpected, and highly original features and its consistent unity of spirit… Even on his deathbed, indeed above all on his deathbed, Mozart knew it would all come out right in the end.”
Well, let’s include a Süssmayr-version in the recommendations, then, but first the simply best recording to date: With near-ideal singing (Christine Schäfer!, Bernarda Fink) and choral contributions and pacing that is as lively as is still seemly for a Requiem, all in superb sound, Harnoncourt & Co. make this the dramatic Requiem-performance of choice. The facsimile of Mozart’s original manuscript is neatly included on the disc and the edition is Franz Beyer’s sensitive adaptation of Mozart and Süssmayr. But with a view to nostalgia, let’s also add Karl Böhm’s Requiem (Süssmayr Edition), which sounds like the ideal cliché of the work; very slow, dark, mesmeric, deliberate, sad. Bloated. The emphasis is on “ideal”, though, not “cliché”, which is why it works (marvelously) in its way and is a (splendid) foil for Harnoncourt… not that the latter really needs it. Further There is a splendid release on the Choir of the King’s College new label with a fine performance of Süssmayr editon with, and this is the kicker, an appendix with various non-Süssmayr realizations. It’s weirdly fascinating to hear what how C.R.F. Maunder or Robert Levin, Franz Beyer, Duncan Druce, or Michael Finnissy try to approximate Mozart more closely than did his reasonably talented student. That’s followed by a second disc dedicated to a captivating audio documentary of the Requiem by Cliff Eisen in which he illustrates with musical examples how the Requiem is an original puzzle that Mozart made of pre-existing pieces. Think of the Requiem as the bonus. To round out the recommendations—and because of the Requiem we really can’t have too many recordings—let’s add Masaaki Suzuki with a female modern dream cast of Carolyn Sampson and Marianne Beate Kielland in a Joseph Eybler-Süssmayr-Suzuki edition of his own making and a powerfully lean performance. Enjoy the Music.