Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 31, 39, 40, 41 [DVD Video]

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No one disputes the influence of Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (he's a Habsburg, for one thing), but this assortment of Mozart and Schubert video performances from the 1980s and early '90s, not even coherent in tunings employed, isn't the best way to get a grip on it. All the performances were filmed, without audience, at the Musikverein in Vienna. They're competently done, especially those by the younger Chamber Orchestra of Europe; the Vienna Philharmonic is a bit stolid in the Mozart Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297, "Paris." Harnoncourt was less radical in Classical-period repertory than in Bach, and his tempos throughout, although he goes for noticeably sharp contrasts, don't push the extremes as he does elsewhere. The problem is that the visual aspect adds little to the experience. The camera seems to go around in a circle, pausing to look up at Harnoncourt from below -- you see a lot of his neck. He was a conductor with a distinctive set of facial expressions, and he can be fun to watch, but the video space gets tedious after a while. The Schubert Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D. 417, on disc two (again with the Vienna Philharmonic) has a different video director, a livelier look, and somewhat better sound quality, but the "bonus" segment entitled "Mein Traum," billed as a filmic realization of the Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, "The Great," is a real laugher. The introduction (in German only, but the body of the film has no dialogue) presents an old man who is about to attend a performance of the symphony and begins to reminisce. His memories begin to interweave themselves with Schubert's music and with rather claustrophobic shots of Harnoncourt conducting -- you don't see the orchestral musicians at all. There are a lot of still shots of the Carinthian mountains and Austrian village scenes, and then a plot of sorts begins to unfold, perhaps a dream within a dream, involving the concertgoer as a young man and another youth who writes the words "Wo du nicht bist ist das Glück" (where you are not, there is happiness) on the wall off a trash-strewn basement where the protagonist sits at a typewriter. The whole thing evokes nothing so much as the experience of falling asleep at a concert. Better to pick up one of the many available CD or download reissues of Harnoncourt's work and provide your own set of visual associations.