Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Mozart: Symphonies 38-41 [Includes Bonus CD]

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Three discs of Chamber Orchestra of Europe performances devoted to work with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt may seem excessive until one considers that their long association goes a long way toward explaining why the orchestra has a 25th anniversary to celebrate in the first place. The youthful players of the COE were ideal partners for the radical Austrian conductor, who, it now seems clear, exerted his greatest influence as a teacher and shaper of the musicians who encountered him. The virtues of Harnoncourt's conducting -- the fresh approaches to every work, the transparency of texture, the interpretive risk-taking -- are all here in this set of Mozart's final symphonies; the issues -- brittleness, a certain ideological quality -- are absent. Harnoncourt remains a conductor who is going to inspire passionate disagreement, and here's some: several of his Andante movements are very brisk walks indeed, and taking the Allegretto of the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, at the blazing speed Harnoncourt does results in a relationship between the final two movements that Mozart would probably not have recognized. Yet one gets the feeling that the musicians thrived in this environment. The Mozart discs are billed as live performances, although they are sonically very clean; they come from the early '90s. The final "bonus disc" is a real thrill ride including such novelties (for Harnoncourt) as a Dvorák Slavonic Dance; it has various inspired moments, among them a version of the Benedictus from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis that is one of the few available that gives the music its proper mystic lightness. It makes you want to hear the whole mass from these forces, and of course that's what a sampler disc ought to do. The whole set is enjoyable and diverting in its sharp left turns.

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