It is maybe ironic that Mozart's final three symphonies (nos. 39, 40 and 41), grand works that epitomise the heights of the Classical era, have been intellectually romanticised in the centuries following his death. It is indeed of one music's marvels that Mozart managed to complete these three extensive works in the summer of 1788, however there has been a prolonged musicological search for an extramusical meaning to these symphonies, with some claiming they might encapsualte Mozart's worldview, a plea for humaniatrianism.

Pinchas Zukerman © Paul Labelle
Pinchas Zukerman
© Paul Labelle

It seems unlikely that, for the most part, a contemporary audience would understand the works in this way, but I believe that there is still a feeling that these works must be revered and treasured as Mozart's final symphonic testament. However, with this acknolwedgment of importance has come an inevitable familiarity, and I feel programming all three works in the same concert is only really justifiable if you have something original and exciting to say. Unfortunately, these were perfectly satisfying yet very routine interpretations.

Firstly, the balance of the orchestra obscured the delicacy of Mozart's orchestration. In the 1780s, the string section would have been at least half the size of the RPO's and consequently the woodwind parts would have been more audible. As a result of this, a lot of the detail in the woodwind passages was lost, and with that a lot of the excitement of Mozart's writing. This was enough to make the concert an average affair; part of the joy of Mozart's orchestral writing is the dialogue between orchestral parts and this was another concert of Classical era works that showed scant regard for this.

Despite this there were some pleasing aspects. The tempi were well-judged throughout and the movements were allowed room to breathe. The slow opening of Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, a common trait in Mozart's later symphonies, lacked majesty but the work proceeded elegantly, the Minuet and Trio was played a little formulaically, but the the final movement was played with energy and drive. 

The performance of Symphony no. 40 in G minor, was again unremarkable, the highlight being the slow movement in which the large string section proved a benefit, creating a warm and passionate sound. However, it never seemed that the significance of this being one of only two symphonies by Mozart in a minor key (the other being no.25, both in G Minor), have been grasped, the playing felt slightly detached. 

The second half was more engaging. Woody Allen once said that Mozart's Symphony no. 41 in C major, or the “Jupiter” Symphony as it is commonly known, “proved the existence of God”. I would agree that it is a miraculous work, particuarly because of the finale, which is full of antiphonal passages where rapid scales and short motifs pass rapidly between sections of the orchestra, this followed by a ear-numbing finale where the five themes we have been introduced to in the movement are played all at once. It was during this movement that the playing finally generated excitement, and Zukermann seemed more conscious of allowing the brass and woodwind due prominence. 

Overall, this was a pleasant concert. If just one symphony had been programmed, perhaps the concert would have been more varied. Hearing three in a row made me yearn for a more interesting artistic statement to be made. Authenticity is a now an established performance practice in Renaissance and Baroque works, however if the big symphonic orchestras are going to take on Mozart, I wish that they would bear in mind that their enlarged forces might distort the balance and obscure some of the detail in Mozart's writing. The audience was pleased with the evening and no doubt such programming continues to draw in audiences, but there is a greater combination of elegance, majesty and wit that can be found within these works.