The "Mozart Year" of 2006 led to an uncompromising spate of recorded, Mozart-related issues, roughly the equivalent of his entire worklist being issued four times over, the first two times in only two packages! Relatively few saw fit to address the matter of how Mozart's music was handled in the early years of the twentieth century, and it's not hard to imagine why not -- Mozart performances from that era have a bad rep, damned as too precious and historically un-informed. Nevertheless, English historical label Symposium decided to throw conventional wisdom to the winds and compile W.A. Mozart 1756-2006, a collection of Mozart recordings made between 1902 and 1922. Such historical territory is deep into the era of acoustical recording, and many of the pieces are heard on W.A. Mozart 1756-2006 in arrangements of various kinds, made to suit the tin ear of the early phonograph. Some confirm the precious reputation of the late romantic approach to Mozart; the Flonzaley Quartet's 1920 recording of the fourth movement of the D minor Quartet K. 421 fairly droops with saccharine sweetness and weepy portamento. In others, the shortcomings of early recording technology is the fly in the ointment, such as the 1910 performance of the first movement of the Flute and Harp Concerto, K. 299, as heard on flute, harp, and -- piano. Not a Steinway mind you, but a tinkly square piano that's out of tune.
However, there's plenty on W.A. Mozart 1756-2006 to garner one's interest, particularly among the vocal items included. If one can brave the ferocious noise from Sir Charles Santley's 1903 recording of "Non più andrai" from Le nozze di Figaro, one can enjoy the energetic rendering of a Figaro who first sang the role before the advent of recording. English bass-baritone Robert Radford, in 1918, delivered a high-spirited aria from Die entführung aus dem Serail in a hilariously silly English translation, and Russian soprano Antonina Nezhdanova sings a hair-raising "Queen of the Night Aria" -- in Russian. There are selections that are just plain bizarre -- a three-inch Stollwerck Chocolate Record featuring a snatch from a Mozart tune played by a brass band; if you didn't like the music, you could eat it. Or the horrendous 1902 performance of the Sistine Chapel Choir in "Ave verum Corpus," featuring the wraithlike shriek of "last castrato" Alessandro Moreschi, not to mention an additional choir made up of unruly boys. Symposium takes a very honest approach to sound recording and so these selections are noisier in some cases than most listeners are used to. The bonus, though, is that when a record is in good shape, sometimes the results contradict the date from which it comes -- there is startlingly realistic sound from a Lilli Lehmann track dating from that other "Mozart Year" of 1906, for example, and a 1909 Louise Kirkby-Lunn that almost sounds electrical. As a listing on the back panel of the booklet advertises other Symposium releases featuring some of these artists, Symposium's motive for compiling W.A. Mozart 1756-2006 is as shrewd as it is beneficial to the wunderkind of Salzburg. Too bad the label couldn't have dropped the premium price a little in honor of the occasion.