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Paul Johnson “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 3 (Symphonies, Operas & Sacred Music)

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, but since Paul Johnson is also a contributor, the editors informed me of the site policy never to have fellow contributors review each other's work, which makes good sense, actually.)

“Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 1 | “Mozart: A Life” — The Discography, Part 2 

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


“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.

available at Amazon Mozart, Sys. Nos.28-30 (K.200-202)
(Complete Sys, v.8)
Danish Ntl.CO, Adam Fischer
Dacapo SACD 6.220543

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Sys. Nos.19-21, 26 (K.132-134, 184)
(Complete Sys., v.6)
Danish Ntl.CO, Adam Fischer
Dacapo SACD 6.220541

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Symphonies
Nos.35 “Haffner”, 36 “Linz”
Prague Philharmonia, Jiří Bélohlávek
Harmonia Mundi 901891

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Symphonies
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Charles Mackerras
Linn SACD 308

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mozart, Symphonies 21-41,
RCO, Josef Krips
Decca 475 8473

I would suggest starting even a little earlier than K.110, just to check in on Johnson. That’s best done with Adam Fischer’s very easily overlooked and marvelous CDs (i.e. “Complete Symphonies, volume 2”, which contains Nos.6, 7, 7a “Old Lambach”, 8 and “No.55” (K.43, 45, 45a, 48 & 45b ) of middle-early Mozart Symphonies, youthful vigor and crisp lightness of which is the main feature—not just Mozart’s but especially Fischer’s interpretations. Volume 8 is another gem, opening with a very lively rendition of K.201 that will invite you to dance along, all the way (jokes or not), at the price of a little—but not much—elegance. Next to Fischer, even Hogwood and Marriner sound awfully well-mannered. Volume 6 is very good (if perhaps not quite gelling as amazingly as those that were recorded late; the numbers of the volumes incidentally not connoting chronology of recording) and convenient for offering K.132 and 134. Comparing Fischer in K.110 to single-disc alternatives like Nicholas Ward (Naxos) and Roger Norrington (Hänssler) shows his account to have more nuanced phrasing, to be rhythmically more compelling, and decidedly more lively (perhaps just a touch fast in the finale)… so if you are interested in that symphony outside a complete box, Dacapo’s Volume 4 of the Mozart Symphonies is the way to go. I shy away from recommending box sets, for many reasons (less concentrated listening and less focused enjoyment; also less necessary in an age of streaming and often less specific in their qualities, for their convenient catch-all nature. Although at this point, you might as well consider their whole set all the same, which is the best modern set I know.

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”.

available at Amazon Mozart, Così fan tutte, K.588
Concerto Köln, R.Jacobs
V.Gens, P.Ciofi, A.Kirchschlager, L.Regazzo, S.Keenlyside

Harmonia Mundi

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro, K.492
Concerto Köln, R.Jacobs
V.Gens, B.Fink, W.Güra, M.Boone, P.Spagnoli, G.Oddone

Harmonia Mundi

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Don Giovanni, K.527
Freiburg BO, R.Jacobs
J.Weisser, L.Regazzo, A.Pendatchanska, O.Pasichnyk, K.Tarver, S.Im, N.Borchev

Harmonia Mundi

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Juan, K.527
Concerto Copenhangen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen
C.Maltman, M.Petrenko, E.Futral, M.Bengtsson, K.Dragojevic et al.
Kaspar Holten (director)
axiom|FILMS AXM044

UK | DE | FR

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.

available at Amazon Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, K.620
Akamus, RIAS Chamber Choir, R.Jacobs
D.Behle, M.Petersen, D.Schmutzhard, S.Im, A-K.Kaappola, M.Fink

Harmonia Mundi

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Idomeneo, K.366
English Baroque Soloists, Monterverdi Choir, John Elliot Gardiner
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sylvia McNair, Hillevi Martinpelto et al.
Archiv 431674

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, K.621
Vienna Philharmonic, N.Harnoncourt
D.Röschmann, V.Kasarova, E.Garanca, M.Schade, B.Bonney
Martin Kusej (director)
Arthaus Musik DVD 107181

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, K.621
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, C.Mackerras
M.Kožená, R. Trost, H.Martinpelto et al.

Archiv 431674

UK | DE | FR

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.”

available at Amazon Mozart, Mass in C Major “Coronation”, K.317, Ave Verum Corpus K.618, Vesperae solennes de confessore K.339
Netherlands Chamber Choir, Orchestra of the 18th Ct., Frans Brüggen
Philips 434799 (oop) / Decca

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Missae breves K.192 & 194, Dixit & Magnifiat K.193
Collegium classicum, Cologne Chamber Chorus, Peter Neumann

Carus 83103

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Mass in C Minor “Geat”, K.427; Ave Verum Corpus K.618; Exsultate jubilate K.165
BRSO & Chorus, Leonard Bernstein, A.Auger, F.v.Stade et al.

Deutsche Grammophon 431791

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Mass in C Minor “Geat”, K.427 (Ed. Robert Levin)
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Helmuth Rilling
D.Damrau, J. Banse, L.Odinius, M.Marquardt
Hänssler 98.227

UK | DE | FR

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.”

available at Amazon Mozart, Requiem K.626 (Ed.Franz Beyer)
Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, N.Harnoncourt
B.Fink, K.Streit, G.Finley, C.Schäfer
RCA 58705

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Requiem K.626 (Ed.Süssmayr)
Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm
E.Mathis, J.Hamari, W.Ochman, K.Ridderbusch

DG 413553

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Requiem K.626 (Ed.Süssmayr), alt. Realizations, Documentary
The Choir of the King’s College, Academy of Ancient Music, Stephen Cleobury

KGS 0002

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Mozart, Requiem K.626 (Ed.Süssmayr-Eybler-Suzuki),
Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki

BIS 2091

UK | DE | FR

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.


Anonymous said...

'Vat is dis? Ze creeps? You give me ze creeps?' - Fritz Reiner upon learning that the Chicago Symphony musicians were playing Beethoven's 7th symphony after a score marked as indicated by Josef Krips.

On a more serious note, I wish I were as enthusiastic about Krips' Mozart set. While clearly Krips knows his Mozart, I can't escape the feeling that these recordings were made at least 10-15 years too late - and not live! Thus, IMO, for many of the wonderful things (and they are many), the performances somehow lack in energy and are on a low scale, at least for my taste. To see what I mean, listen to Krips' live Beethoven's 7th from one of the live Anthology of the Concertgebouw sets (vol. 2).

And I disagree that many pre-1990 Mozart performances sound dated; not for me in any case. In general, if I like a conductor, I respond to most of his performances. For instance, I would listen to anything led by Klemperer, Tennstedt, or Silvestri, and I love their Mozart, style and all.

As for my favorite complete Mozart set, is the one led by Hans Graf, especially for the early symphonies; less so for the late ones - well, it is post 1990 so it kind of makes your point. But for a partial set of the late symphonies my choice would be, surprise, Otmar Suitner. None of the individual performances are my first choice and if one argues that they are kapellmeister-ish, I would not disagree. These are readings that, to use a cliché, "let the music speak for itself". They are immensely aided by the Dresden Staatskapelle, which I enjoy much more than in Colin Davis' recordings of the same repertoire. Indeed, it may be the orchestra that seals the deal for me; without it, I may not even care that much about these recordings.

Anonymous said...

A small correction: I double-checked the Hans Graf and it was actually recorded between 1988-1990, so not actually post-1990 but close enough.

jfl said...

Thanks much for the comment. I hadn't been aware of the Graf set on Capriccio at all, actually. But yes, it fits, time-wise, into the era where HIP influences were getting mainstream traction. I will seek it out (online, for starters), and give it a listen.

I'm not that surprised seeing the name of Otmar Suitner. Although I don't know his Mozart, I'm totally convinced of him as a conductor; a real musician. Now I wonder if Konwitschny has ever recorded any Mozart symphonies.

It's a funny thing with 'outdated' things. Different reasons will 'send me back' to listen to recordings that were once thought to be great, and I can only confirm that without the emotion of having these interpretations discovered at the time, and them being actually top-notch then, there's little left to justify their status as 'great'. And at other times I go back and I think: HELLO! This really *is* stupendous. Not sure what, if anything, this says... but I like the image of scuttling back and forth in music and getting a healthy dose of ambiguity along the way, rather than ossified conviction.



Gene said...

For what it's worth, George Szell's #35, 39, 40, and 41 with Cleveland certainly pre-date the 1990s and remain my favorite versions of those works.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for late reply. Interesting discussion, plenty of things to note.

First of all, I should point out that I did not hear all the recordings that you mentioned of the early Mozart symphonies. But I did hear a number of interpretations from famous names who shall remain anonymous because these respected artists have given us a number of truly great recordings of other repertoire. So when I came across Hans Graf, I finally found a recording that I was satisfied with. So I stopped my search and I did not explore further as there is more interesting music out there - and not only by Mozart.

As for Konwitschny, I see both at Amazon and Berkshire Record Outlet some live Mozart performances, plus there is the Orfeo CD of a Salzburg Festival concert in which he collaborates with Gulda in PC 23. I haven't heard any of them but the Orfeo CD is on my purchase list as a Dresden Staatskapelle fan. Much easier to find is Konwitschny's Bach, but let's not go there - and it even has the wrong Oistrakh to begin with!!!

As for Suitner, while as I said, I like his symphonies recordings with the Dresdeners, I was less enthusiastic about his Marriage of Figaro - and not because it's "auf deutsch". But with a cast including Prey, Güden, Rothenberger and Berry I shouldn't perhaps complain too much. I did not hear his other Mozart operas recordings, nor his live symphony recordings with the NHK Orchestra.

And I understand perfectly your reaction towards older recordings. After all, like Erich Kleiber said in another context, blood flows differently in our veins at different times - something along this way, anyhow.

There are, of course, recordings that are somehow are great despite, well, better judgment. Anything conducted by Nikolai Golovanov would be such an example (the 1812 Overture must be heard to be believed). Closer to our discussion, I mentioned Silvestri. I should say that his recording of Mozart's Mass in C minor is one of my favorite in spite of its odds.

The first miraculous thing is that it even exists, given that censorship in communist Romania was much stringer than in East Germany of Hungary. Then, it uses a wrong edition, Schmitt-Paumgartner if I am not mistaken. The soloists do not have unpleasant voices (most of them, anyway), but they do have more than an occasional pitch problem. The chorus, actually two of them, is large and so is the orchestra. The playing is substandard - though who know on what kind low quality soviet instruments these brave musicians are using - yet enthusiastic. Yet somehow Silvestri keeps it together. Similar for Missa Solemnis with which the Mozart is paired on CDs. Get a Romanian friend (this should not be so difficult as I understand that Germany has the most beautiful women: 60% are Romanians, the rest are Polish, right?) and pray that there a few copies left in Romania.

An easier to find, and perhaps more representative of Silvestri approach to Mozart live in concert is a CD called "A Bournemouth Love Affair." For me this is an essential one as it also contains what is by a wide margin the best recording of Enescu's 1st Symphony (well, perhaps not that wide since the recent Lintu recording has better orchestra and much better sound, and Lintu is a good conductor himself, plus his recording also contains perhaps the best version of the Symphonie Concertante, though I believe this to be a lesser Enescu piece.) But back to Mozart and Silvestri, the Zauberflöte overture on that CD is certainly one of my favorites; the Symphony nr. 29 less so but still pretty good. I also love the Prokofiev Classical, but I digress too much so I apologize for the sprawl and end here.

jfl said...

Those Szell-Cleveland performances are, for that reason, part of George Pieler's and my How To Build A Top Quality Classical Music Library For $100 list. Very good recordings, indeed, and among those that seem (almost) timeless.