René Jacobs, best known for his revelatory performances of early opera, tackles two of Mozart's final magisterial trio of symphonies with mixed results. His approach is to strip all elements of romantic interpretation from the works, keeping strict tempi and trimming all fat from the string tone. At times, for example the first and third movements of the G minor Symphony, the approach yields dividends in clarifying the textures and revealing the brilliance of the orchestration, but too often the period instrument sound turns ugly. Mozart would surely not have approved, for all the accuracy and passion of the playing. The chief shortcoming, especially prevalent in the E Flat Major Symphony No. 39, is the unhappy contrast between the sweet wind instruments and the harsh and sometimes brutal string tone, abetted by the heavy thumping drumbeats that knock the very life out of the work. Charm and subtlety, always features of the best Mozart, are sadly lacking. Tempi are on the fast side and all repeats are observed. While the G Minor's Menuetto movement takes a mere 3m 47s to Marriner's 4m 25s, the Andante is taken at a measured pace at 15m 8s to Marriner's 7m 50s, distorting the very structure of the work. In Marriner's hands all movements are fairly similar in length, but Jacobs has the slow movement four times longer than the Menuetto and roughly twice as long as the two Allegro movements. On the other hand, the Menuetto successfully holds my attention throughout its heavenly length, a tribute to Jacobs' meticulous sense of line.
The recordings were made in November 2008 under the direction of Martin Sauer in the Paul Hall in Freiburg, Germany. The recording quality is quite transparent but lacks any significant depth or warmth that might serve to soften the hard edges of the performance. This particular orchestra would benefit from a warmer acoustic.
Jacobs sets out to do things differently, to recreate the sound of a performance that might have been heard in Mozart's day. If he has succeeded, then I think we can be thankful the for the gains made over the intervening centuries. If original instrument recordings must sound like this, give me a modern orchestra any day. Fortunately we have many fine examples to prove that period instruments can sound rich and warm even while eschewing vibrato and sticking to the size of orchestra originally intended. Take for example Rachel Podger's recent Channel Classics recording of the Sinfonia Concertante with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment [CCS SA 29309] or John Eliot Gardiner's set of the Beethoven Symphonies with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique [Archiv 439 900-2].
To capture the magic of the Mozart Symphonies, seek out classic recordings from Beecham or Walter, more recent and wonderfully balanced recordings from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, or for period instrument enthusiasts, Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert.