Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s summer of 1788 was astonishingly productive despite considerable personal turmoil. In June, the Mozarts’ six-month-old daughter died and financial troubles once again burdened the couple who were frequently in debt. Yet in a span of about eight to ten weeks Mozart wrote three symphonies, in E-flat (K. 543), G minor (K. 550), and C (K. 551, ‘Jupiter’). Little evidence is available to verify whether the subscription concert for which the symphonies were intended actually took place, or whether the symphonies were ever performed in the composer’s lifetime. The recent publication of Joseph Haydn’s ‘Paris’ symphonies may have urged Mozart towards another look at the genre, as emulation of his friend and mentor was not unusual. Whatever sparked their creation, the early close to Mozart’s life turned these three summer symphonies into his last.
Since then, the “last” symphonies have become a staple triptych of symphonic masterworks. There is no shortage of recordings, so why bother with another? The Hamburg-based Ensemble Resonanz and conductor Riccardo Minasi do not so much as answer the question as render it moot. The recordings are, simply put, remarkable. They take an historically informed style and reach for a contemporary theatricality that is fresh and exhilarating. Leonard Bernstein famously declared that ‘Mahler Grooves’; here is the reply that Mozart can dance too.
The forceful playing that opens Symphony no. 39 announces the enthusiasm sustained throughout. The mix favours winds and percussion, which pop with real clarity (the violins less so at times). The horns grab particular attention and can be menacing and searching; the opening of Symphony no. 40—with horns at the fore—has never sounded quite so dramatic. In other places, drama turns into wild thrills. If played in isolation, parts of the exposition of Symphony 41’s Allegro Vivace could have undergraduates penciling in The Rite of Spring on listening exams. By contrast, other moments show remarkable delicacy. The wistful woodwind and string playing in Symphony no. 40’s Andante almost fully dissolve into thin air. The much-admired second movement of “Jupiter” is as lovely as ever.
All throughout, considerable rubatos, abrupt sforzandi, and other unexpected shapings and colourings are exhilarating encounters that elicit small smiles as often as they stiffen spines. Minasi’s achievement is that all the twists and turns and surprises feel as if they come from a deep, organic redesign rather than some hasty polish on the surface of an old machine. Minor choices here and there may strike listeners as imbalanced or unwise—the overly contrasted tempo between the first and second themes of Symphony no. 40’s first movement is one example—yet Minasi, with the Ensemble Resonanz’s stellar execution, has found genuinely exciting possibilities in well-worn classics.
With all its cleanness and avoidance of Romantic glow, the recordings bring to mind the best of period ensembles and historically informed performance such as the English Baroque Soloists with John Eliot Gardener or the Freiburg Barockorchester with René Jacobs. The Ensemble Resonanz does indeed include period instruments such as natural horns and leather timpani, though the strings are modern instruments played in an historically informed style. Yet, Minarsi and the Ensemble Resonanz are hardly out to re-create 1780s Vienna but instead reinterpret it for our current zeitgeist and cultural expectations. They are less interested in historical accuracy than in bringing the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries together. It feels like an entirely new game and a waypoint for some hopeful future, in a summer with no lack of personal turmoil of our own.