Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final triad of symphonies are a tour de force of the Classical symphonic genre. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Maestro James Levine elected to take listeners on an auditory tour of these masterpieces in the last of three recent concerts dedicated to the exploration of Mozart’s symphonic output. I attended the Friday afternoon concert on February 20.
From the first note of the first, No. 39, it was evident that concertgoers were in for a joyful ride. Tempi were brisk; the playing highly charged. Levine was in the driver’s seat of a finely-tuned machine hurtling down familiar roads. His big-picture style of conducting was evident in the strikingly cohesive sound and structural lucidity of the music. Refreshing to hear these oft-performed pieces played with an almost preternatural clarity.
Though a chill wind was howling outside, things heated up rapidly inside the Hall. After a buoyant first movement, a surprisingly large number of patrons noisily blew in; Levine looked none too pleased at the interruption. Onward he plunged, however; the remainder of the piece was decidedly upbeat. The clarinet solo in the third movement was delightful.
One of only two Mozart symphonies in a minor key, the 40th is a rich work; it features driving rhythms that propel the music forward. Levine was extremely adept at accentuating this propulsive quality. In the lush and expressive second movement, the birdcalls of the woodwinds were accompanied by the susurrations of some unfortunate audience member’s oxygen tank. Alas, the tank was consistently behind the beat. The third movement tossed listeners about on a windswept sea; things only got stormier in the finale.
Mozart’s final symphony, No. 41, apparently posthumously nicknamed ‘Jupiter’ by music impresario Johann Salomon, is a powerful work that lives up to its sobriquet. Like the Roman ‘King of Gods,’ this piece is sweeping and grandiose. The first movement reminds one of a conversation with a particularly emphatic friend: passionate and sweetly bombastic. With his expressive left hand, Levine seemed at times to be attempting to play some of the instruments himself. The string section sounded particularly elegant. Movement two is downright Beethoven-esque: moody, pensive; at times, yearning. The sweeping flow of the third movement was rapidly superseded by the ebullience and barely contained energy of the finale, a youthful exuberance that belied the composer’s dire financial straits and personal struggles.
Actually, as this refined music was washing over me, found it sobering to reflect upon the fact that all of these symphonies, along with several other works, were composed in the span of just six short weeks during the summer of Mozart’s thirty-third year. Think if he’d had a MIDI!*
The Boston Symphony is in rare form these days. They seem to exude passion and enthusiasm. The streamlined version of conductor James Levine is bursting with energy and the caliber of play is unparalleled.
Before the final note had died away, the large audience, no doubt with upwards of 120,000 years of living between them, rose to their feet and loudly voiced their approval. The genius of a young composer, the passion of a gifted conductor, the musicality of a fine orchestra: it was a privilege to be at the nexus of these powerful musical forces. If only there were a 42nd to look forward to! . . . .
* Musical Instrument Digital Interface – meaning he could have improved on this output! — ed.