CLASSCOL

For this final Sunday of the Mozart year, another fond glance at music’s purest genius might be in order. The admirable project begun by Philips, to amass a complete recording of the Mozartian heritage in its numerical and radiant fullness, nears completion on schedule. Of 45 projected volumes, 37 are now at hand. Of the remaining eight, six will be reissues of recordings already familiar, complete operas conducted by Sir Colin Davis. The entire project — the quality of performance, the packaging and annotations — has been carried out on a high level of integrity and taste. The final volume, by the way, consists of a miscellany, including pieces from a sketchbook that the 9-year-old wunderkind compiled during a visit to London. Also in this volume is an uncompleted rondo for horn and orchestra, whose manuscript was only discovered this past year. The work may be inconsequential, but it stands as a reminder that the Mozart treasury continues to grow. The passion for completeness, surely one of the motivating forces behind this monolithic recording project, has its down side, of course. Nobody will be so foolhardy as to proclaim that every moment on every one of these 180 compact discs is the affirmation of high genius. Any rational-minded connoisseur must admit, on working his way through all or part of this treasurable collection, that there is a hierarchy of excellence clearly in evidence. My own lists of expendable Mozart have contained, from time to time, such varied repertory as the two big Vesper services, the Concerto for Three Pianos, the interminable variations that form the finale of the Sinfonia Concertante for Winds, and the opera about the Disguised Gardener that appears in the series in both Italian and German versions, each running over three hours. In every case I have returned to the works in question, listened again with ears somehow mysteriously refreshed, and discovered some haunting turn of phrase, some astounding harmonic progression or breath-stopping orchestral color that I had somehow missed before. These works are, then, banished from the dark lists and returned to favor — until the next time. The essence of mastery in a piece of music, of whatever extent, is its power to reveal new aspects on repeated hearings. To visit and revisit these Mozart packages over the past year, to check out one more time a work you think familiar, or to investigate some juvenile caprice you’ve never before heard, becomes an experience in continual revelation. When, before, did you hear the wind passage before the reprise in the slow movement of the 39th Symphony played with such exquisite balance as it is here by the winds of Neville Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields? How did you miss, until just now, the sheer boyish delight in the piece called “Galimathias musicum,” flung forth by this incredible child at the age of ten? The total of these 180 discs is a staggering outpouring of great music. It makes for a daunting stretch along eight feet of shelf space, yet the quality of its content makes it user-friendly in a way that, say, a similar project for Bach or Haydn might not be. The ultimate triumph of Mozart is the way a human voice is, almost always, close to the surface of the music. The voice may be impersonated by a clarinet or horn, as in the slow movements of his mature piano concertos. It may be the voice of a real person, as when Susanna sings of her marital bliss in the last act of “The Marriage of Figaro.” But Mozart has this way in his music of making you believe that he is talking to you alone, and nobody else. It’s a gift he never lost. The Philips Mozart project was not the only large-scale tribute to this angelic composer produced in the anniversary year; his music has been lavishly attended to by any number of producers. But the Philips series was by far the broadest, and it was also managed by a group of artists exceptionally well-suited to the task. For a record company with Marriner and Davis under contract among its conductors, with Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida as its pianists, with its violin repertory still fresh in older recordings by the late Arthur Grumiaux and Henryk Szeryng, and with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields to provide the idealized Mozartian orchestral sound, its all-out participation in a Mozart celebration was preordained. You will search long before you come across a project of this size with performance standards so consistently maintained. The question of so-called “authenticity” arises. Strange; when Marriner’s Academy made its first recordings, some 20 years ago, their Mozart was hailed as a revelation of the “authentic” Mozartian sound, mostly because of the careful balance between a relatively small string section and the winds — as opposed to the full-orchestra sound of, say, Seiji Ozawa’s Boston Symphony. Now, however, we have other ensembles (also mostly British) who dig deeper into the “authentic” sound, with instruments reconstructed from old models. By their standards, the Academy now sounds old-fashioned. And so it may be, and so may be the sound of Brendel and Uchida, playing on modern concert grand pianos. Yet there is another way of looking at this whole “authenticity” syndrome: the matter of fidelity to the spirit, no less than the sound. Someday, Heaven forfend, yet another record producer will hit upon the idea of a complete Mozart project, this time jiggered to as to produce exactly the sounds Mozart and his 18th-century audiences may have heard. It would be hard to conceive, however, that any such project could come as close to the authentic spirit of the music as you’ll find in the undertaking already at hand.

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