Monday, October 24, 2011

Random Record Review 1: Mozart's Symphonies #40 and #41

The Record: Mozart, Symphonies #40 & #41 ("Jupiter").  Vienna Philharmonic, James Levine conducting.
Format: CD
Year of Release: 1991
Genre: Classical | True Classical | Symphonic

And the first record – but wait, we have a terminology issue. For this project, I guess I'll use “record” or “album” interchangeably to denote the basic unit under consideration. These words both refer to a coherently packaged and marketed collection of songs or other musical pieces, or sometimes a single extended musical piece. Traditionally offered on one or, less commonly, multiple compact discs, vinyl LPs, or cassette tapes, “records” are usually given a identifying cover image and in most cases consist of music produced by a single performer. They tend to be in the neighborhood of forty-five to seventy minutes long. Exceptions are legion.

Let's Try Again

And the first record summoned to stand forward for review – by a process involving both a random number generator and a 20-sided die – is this pairing of Mozart’s final two symphonies. It’s kind of a funny way to start a culling project, because like most people with more than a glancing interest in classic music I think of Mozart 40 and 41 as absolute core collection. Indeed, I own at least three or four recordings of both of them, and none of them are in any danger of being tossed out.

Mozart’s 40th, in particular, has extremely deep roots in my psyche. It was in fact one of the selections on the Reader’s Digest twelve-album boxed set of "Music of the World's Greatest Composers." I discovered this collection waiting inexplicably among my parents’ folk and country records when I was nine or ten, and it would really lay the foundation for all my subsequent taste in music. A few years ago I went to considerable trouble to secure a surviving copy of this vinyl cultural relic, rip it to .mp3, and burn it to CD, so happily I still have that ur-Mozart’s 40th as well as the rest of that formative canon in my collection.

Mozart’s 40th was also the first classical piece I ever heard performed by a live orchestra, at a campus event during my freshman year of college. Any live classical performance is a rediscovery of how much more amazing symphonic sound is in person than it is on a recording, but the first experience of this – how the music can, on a good day, reach right into your body and grab you by the guts – was especially memorable.

The 40th and 41st Symphonies, as well as the 39th, were all thrown together over the course of a few weeks in 1788. Mozart, his career on the decline, likely thought of them primarily as money makers to keep him afloat while he tried to score another big hit opera.  Nevertheless, they are landmarks in the history of the symphony. Mozart, like Haydn, wrote scads of the short, light concert pieces called symphonies in the early and middle phases of their career. These can be less than ten minutes long, and most of them, although pleasant enough, don't generally knock our socks off these days.  With pieces like the ones on this disc, though, the symphony is in transition to something bigger, longer, more complex, more dynamic, and more expressive.  Beethoven would take the ball from them and continue expanding the symphony into the epic, thundering form that would dominate the 19th Century.

The 40th is wistful and graceful and poignant, and dear to my heart. The 41st, sometimes called “The Jupiter,” is more muscular and assertive, and like all Mozart it’s terrific, but it has never got its hooks into me like the 40th. This particular CD is on the Deutsche Grammophon label, which is always good. I'm really not sure when it entered my collection.

Decision: Strong Keep.


Elaine said...

Have you ever heard the Waldo de los Rios (I think I recall his name correctly) album that includes 'Mozart 40?' He also has a lovely Brahms 1st Symphony on that record. (Just one movement from each, with modern sensibilities...)

It was around 71, 72....Back in the 1900's....

Voron X said...

The 40th is one of my favorite classical pieces of all time too. I had it as one of my major ringtones for a while.

I, too, like it better than the 41st.