L'Oiseau Lyre's Mozart: The Symphonies, performed by the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, is the ne plus ultra of Mozart symphony sets. Many "complete" collections of this cycle omit Symphony No. 37 as the better part of it is composed not by Mozart but by Michael Haydn as the result of a backroom trade of compositions between the two old friends. Most do not address the Mozart symphonies that are considered doubtful or that fall outside the accepted canon of Numbers 1-41, and few more contain orchestral Mozart works related to his symphonic output but are technically not symphonies. Hogwood's set, however, contains everything of Mozart's symphonic or near-symphonic music -- excepting most opera overtures, dances, and divertimenti -- as was understood at the time of its release in 1997; it contains 19 discs originally packaged in smaller sets and recorded between 1978 and 1985. Hogwood also includes alternate scorings of symphonies No. 31, No. 35, and No. 40. The alternate of Symphony No. 40, the "Great" G minor, is particularly telling in that it is rewritten without clarinet parts and to some extent rescored. As it is in the later of the two versions, Hogwood posits that this incarnation represents Mozart's own last thoughts on the subject of this most famous of his symphonic works, although it likely won't supplant the familiar first version anytime soon.
All of the performances are grouped by their chronological relationship to one another and just where Mozart was when each symphony was composed -- London, the Netherlands, Salzburg, Italy, back to Salzburg again, Paris, and Vienna. Hogwood, as Neal Zaslaw's painstakingly detailed notes relate, has researched the makeup of specific orchestras in each place where these symphonies were composed and attempts to match them as closely as possible. Whether one hears the result of such diligent scholarship outside of the obvious variance in winds that derive from each score -- nine first violins in one orchestra versus eleven in another, for example -- is hard to say. However, Hogwood does manage to avoid the preciousness that typifies many recorded performances of Mozart's symphonies and his interpretations never sound broad or overinflated. They do not have the same intensity of purpose that one encounters in Trevor Pinnock's smaller 11-disc Mozart symphony set for Archiv, but not every listener who loves Mozart enough to invest in a complete symphony set is looking for "intensity." If Hogwood's general approach to such a wide range of material -- both authentic and seemingly inauthentic works -- can be typified in a word or two, perhaps "gravity" and "dignity" would be operative terms. Although he does not succeed in making the questionable "Odense" symphony sound like genuine Mozart, Hogwood does provide the little piece with as much of a sense of occasion as he can muster. This baseline of interpretive quality is maintained throughout the set, which contains many very satisfying, though essentially conservative, performances. Although the collection represents a mixture of analog and digital sources, it sounds pretty much the same all the way through.
As a set, the little box has its drawbacks. It is not, at first, easy to identify which disc is which from the discs themselves; a tiny superscript number in the upper left-hand of the disc is the only indicator one gets as to the volume number. No big deal if it were a smaller set, but for 19 discs this feature is none too helpful. Each disc is included in thin paper sleeves that identify the disc and contents in a taller point size, so don't let the CDs get too far away from these sleeves! Nevertheless, for an excellent CD set containing possibly every note Mozart composed in a symphonic context and then some, L'Oiseau Lyre's Mozart: The Symphonies easily earns a top commendation.