Nikolaus Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien

The Last Symphonies: Mozart's Instrumental Oratorium

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Mozart's last three symphonies were composed quickly over a two-month period in 1788, and they have often been regarded as a group, due in part to the circumstances of how they were discovered after Mozart's death, but also because of some unanswered questions. Were they intended to be published as a set, who were they written for, and were they even performed in Mozart's lifetime? Nikolaus Harnoncourt adds another level of complexity to the mystery by claiming that these symphonies were actually composed as one work, an "Instrumental Oratorium," comparable to the great choral oratorios that Mozart had studied at the time. The similarity of themes and motives, the perceived formal design of an introduction (K. 543), a middle section (K. 550), and a finale (K. 551), and the continuity of dramatic and expressive effects have convinced Harnoncourt that they are indeed unified in an original form that only Mozart could have conceived. Whatever one makes of this explanation, and whether it comes across in Harnoncourt's vivid performances with Concentus Musicus Wien, is necessarily left to each listener to decide. There is nothing in the performances that differs wildly from other period-style performances, and close study would be needed for many listeners to recognize the thematic connections. However, with the thought in mind that these symphonies could be a single entity, unlike anything else composed in the Classical era, listeners may easily accept Harnoncourt's theory as valid, if not merely thought-provoking. Beyond that, these are exciting performances that convey the music with explosive energy and vibrant colors, and they are highly recommended.

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