in: Reviews

March 20, 2015

Valedictory Mozart Under Dohnányi


Christoph von Dohnányi is patrician. (Winslow Townson photo)

Christoph von Dohnányi is patrician. (Winslow Townson photo)

On at least a couple of documented occasions, Mozart successfully programmed a symphony into one of his public concerts along with a concerto and some vocal numbers. But would his public buy three symphonies in a row?

A visitor to modern Vienna can hardly pause on Stephansplatz or Kärntner Straße without being accosted by scores of polyglots dressed in something vaguely Habsburgian offering tickets to orchestral concerts combined with meals in palatial settings. While this fairly common element of tourist fare rarely attracts musically inclined visitors, a quick check with literature suggests that this enterprise may not be drastically different from some of the projects of 1788 in which Mozart engaged in frantic attempts to bring his cash flow under control.

Whether he wrote the last three symphonies with an eye towards a London voyage, or indeed intended them primarily for subscription concerts in Trattnerhof or Spiegelgasse, a stone throw away from today’s ticket peddlers, there was little immediate  exposure to the public for whom Mozart might have become old news by that time. Not even the volcanic burst of creativity in the summer of 1788 could have changed it on the spot.

For there is such as a thing as oversaturation of the Mozart brand. Here again the 2015 Vienna can be an illustration, albeit a couple of centuries away. The master’s portraits in public places number in tens of thousand—millions if you count Mozartkugeln. His music is performed daily and sometimes exploited in all sorts of creative ways: for one example, the Sunday Mass at Augustinerkirche is advertised around the Hofburg area as Zauberflötenmesse, and indeed it provides lovely morsels such as the pompous and funny “Aria of the Three Ladies,” but this time laden with more ecclesiastical verse and presumably stripped of its inherent irony. Only sometimes can too much be a good thing.

We know that Mozart failed to sell enough tickets for 1788 subscriptions, and there is no firm evidence that the Viennese heard the Jupiter Symphony in composer’s lifetime. Bostonians on the other hand had no problems filling the Symphony hall on the frigid Thursday night—and loved it. There was a distinct and very satisfied chatter in the hall about the affordable rush tickets, reminding us of the recent discussion here on good karma flowing to the management.

It is tantalizing to guess now what kind of performance of the symphonies Mozart would have been happy with. The record suggests that when the Symphony in G Minor was played in the composer’s presence, he left, appalled that something was ‘not right.’ But what ticked him off: out of tune playing? Too boring for his mercurial personality? Too lively for the profound musical ideas? All we know is that he added clarinets to the second edition.

Whatever the argument for the three symphonies’ having been conceived as a whole in Mozart’s mind, there is hardly any indication that they were intended to be played as a group. Such a triple-header could only have emerged as a product of a century of Mozart cult, but it is a good thing. It certainly makes as much sense as consecutive hearings of Beethoven’s last three sonatas. The sequence of three symphonies is all well behaved in their Allegro-Andante-Menuetto-Finale structures, but at the same time they offer a great superstructure of mostly sunny, mostly stormy, mostly sunny, leaves the listener deeply satisfied.

Christoph von Dohnányi conducted without a score, with remarkably economical gestures, and with general air of patrician authority. He avoided exaggeration, whether in dynamics or in tempi, and let the stately forms speak.  This orchestra could most likely play these credibly without any guidance from the podium, but at moments, the benevolent autocrat clearly took the reins and the orchestra the bit. He appropriately hushed the strings and let the winds completely own the Trio in the 3rd movement of the E-flat major, sharpened the edginess of the menuetto in the G minor, and firmly maintained the muffled suspense in the Andante cantabile of the C major.

The orchestra was up to its usual level, though a bit more animated in the Jupiter in the previous two. The incredible finale of the closer was delivered with crispness and full commitment. Its Olympian glow was still shining upon us, as we attempted to extricate the car from an ugly ice trap off of Huntington Avenue.

This was Mozart in impeccable taste—perfect for everyone who likes such a thing.

Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.


  1. How big a band? Any da capos?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 21, 2015 at 9:16 am

  2. The strings were reduced. I can’t remember if 4 or 5 stands of violins. 3 basses.

    Most if not all repeats were taken (I can’t remember which halves of last movements have them). Including, BTW, the repeats in the menuet da capos.

    It was live, and therefore not perfect. But there was much to admire all round– even when Dohnanyi took third movement of the g minor “traditionally” slow, he and the band brought out the voices and harmonies extraordinarily well. And while concentration sagged a little after that, it came all back in focus for the finale of 41. All told, it must have been a great night to be onstage.

    Comment by Camilli — March 21, 2015 at 11:01 pm

  3. On Thursday night, strings were 12-10-7-5-3 so slightly more top-heavy than the more typical 12-10-8-6-4. The result was certainly effective in terms of transparency and I didn’t sense any lack of low-end depth

    Comment by Gerry — March 22, 2015 at 11:15 am

  4. The bass section seems to be singing more vigorously than I remember in the past, and sounding quite beautiful. It can’t be a change in personnel, so perhaps it is the Nelsons influence? Or the stage layout. Or maybe it’s just that my tastes and perceptions are changing.

    Comment by Camilli — March 22, 2015 at 12:08 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.