Birthday bonanza of Mozart CDs a gift for fans

The celebration oft he composer's 250th birthday has produced recordings that appeal to a variety of musical preferences.

Published July 2, 2006

Composer Charles Ives once remarked to a friend, "I'll have to admit I enjoyed playing Mozart . . . but a whole afternoon of Mozart is a whole afternoon of Mozart."

Ives wasn't referring to recordings in 1918, and he wasn't generally a fan of Mozart or of technology, but were he alive today, he'd find a lot more than an afternoon's worth of Mozart compact discs to play.

In case you haven't heard, 2006 is Mozart's 250th birthday, and practically every orchestra, opera company and music festival in existence is paying tribute to the composer of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, The Marriage of Figaro and the Jupiter Symphony.

Now enter the CDs. Record labels have released a flood of new Mozart discs, enough to occupy many full days if not weeks, and on the whole they're far more enlivening than Ives' comment would suggest.

The latest haul not only covers the bases in terms of repertoire, it also includes something for every musical taste, whether you're a period instrument fan, modern instrument purist or strictly an opera lover.

Serious Mozart fans won't want to miss fresh takes on the Requiem and C-Minor Mass, both of which turn up in new recordings that present unique, eye-opening editions of the scores by scholar Robert Levin. After all, you don't get to hear something "new" by Mozart every day.

Those familiar with the standard-version Requiem might be surprised to learn that Mozart imagined a grand fugue on the word "amen" after the Lacrimosa and a much longer "Hosanna" fugue than the one he actually penned.

Levin and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles also make strong cases for lighter Requiem orchestration in certain prominent spots, most noticeably the Agnus Dei, although muffled engineering tends to dampen the effect.

The C-Minor Mass overhaul is even more dramatic. Helmuth Rilling's recording with the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart features almost 25 minutes of music absent from the modern version usually performed today.

Most of it serves to fill out the Credo section, for which Mozart drafted only suggestions. Highlights include a rigorous fugue on "Crucifixus," a jubilant "Et Resurrexit," a curiously upbeat tenor aria and an exquisite Agnus Dei aria for soprano. Whether all these will catch on is another question.

Further fodder for hard-core listeners arrives on a new disc called Mozart the Mason. Besides the late, relentlessly engaging Divertimento (K. 563), the disc features Mozart's rarely heard transcriptions of Bach Preludes and Fugues in spine-tingling performances by violinist Jonathan Crow, violist Douglas McNabney and cellist Matt Haimovitz.

The final contender in the rarely heard category is the Symphonie Concertante for Four Winds, one of three major works on a disc called Concertante that spotlights Mozart's Paris sojourn of 1778. The period-instrument Freiburg Baroque Orchestra treats this regal symphony, which features flute, oboe, horn and bassoon, to a lyrical performance. And there's another alternative entry to enjoy: the Paris Symphony (K. 297) with both long and short versions of the Andante.

Unique among the period-instrument discs is a recent release of Mozart's 14th and 21st Piano Concertos as delivered on a fortepiano, a predecessor of the modern piano with a lighter, crisper sound. Steven Lubin functions as both soloist and conductor, and the results are remarkably cohesive, full of pluck and tenderness.

Unfortunately, not all period-instrument performances are created equal. Andrew Manze's new recording of the third, fourth and fifth Violin Concertos represents a rare misstep for the usually compelling violin virtuoso. Drawing out many phrases to maximum length, Manze gives way to a cloying emotionality that strips the concertos of their personalities.

More convincing are violinists Fabio Biondi and Baiba Skride, both of whom dish up the famous third concerto with tons of character but without all the sentiment. Skride's disc also boasts the Rondo No. 2 in C Major and a surprisingly vigorous, folksy Violin Concerto by Michael Haydn.

Of the two modern-instrument concerto discs, the one to note is Piotr Anderszewski and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performing the 17th and 20th Piano Concertos. Like Lubin, Anderszewski is the nerve center of the action as both soloist and conductor, only his performances come off with greater intimacy and surprise, and tensile strength. There's much more to savor by way of orchestral playing, too.

Without a doubt, the best of this Mozart bunch are the chamber music discs, and the best of the best is the Prazak Quartet with violist Hatto Beyerele playing the G-Minor and D-Major String Quintets (K. 516 and 593).

A live recording of the esteemed Czech quartet's 2,000th concert, the disc testifies to a real human event. Sounds of coughing and page-turning mingle unobtrusively with the music, adding solemnity to authoritative performances of two of Mozart's densest and most introspective scores.

It's a similar story, only without the ambience, on the British Belcea Quartet's polished recordings of the Dissonance and Hoffmeister quartets. The Prazaks may outgun the Belceas in maturity, but the two ensembles are absolute equals in feeling and technical matters.

At the top of the polished scale is violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter's new Deutsche Grammophon release of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Piano Trios. Like almost everything else she has done lately, it's hermetically perfect, with nary an uneven quaver or rough patch in sight. Still, there's enough genuine spark here to keep things interesting.

Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca is introduced to a wide audience in the United States on disc; she sings an eclectic mix of concert arias and selections from La Clemenza di Tito, La Finta Giardiniera and Cosi Fan Tutte. Her creamy sound is off-putting at first, but it soon becomes clear why she's such a hit in Europe.

Her voice is intensely focused beneath the surface, and she possesses startling reserves of sheer force. Also she emerges as an unusually flexible singer who can tailor her instrument to specific dramatic dimensions.

Mozart in Egypt is a genre all by itself. Lacing a modern orchestra with a host of traditional Egyptian instruments and vocalists, composers Hughes de Courson and Ahmed al Maghreby use themes from Mozart symphonies and chamber works as starting points for liberally swooning and sometimes strange fantasies and improvisations. The disc is not always on firm musicological footing, but it's hard to quibble with so many imaginative explorations.

Beginners wishing to sample Mozart's greatest hits without committing to complete works should find Mozart: A Celebration satisfactory. The three-disc set introduces all the major works in most of the major genres. More experienced listeners will probably turn elsewhere but they won't be turned off, either, by the quality of the performances here.

Finally, there's the umbrella option. Collectors wishing to own everything Mozart ever wrote have a new and relatively inexpensive option in a complete works set on the Brilliant label. The only way to get it, though, is to order through Amazon.de, the German branch of Amazon.com. Go there and ask for Mozart's Das Gesamtwerk in the "Klassik" category. In a recent search it was 85 euros - approximately $107. Not bad for 170 CDs and a catalog of well-known artists. One thing's for sure: It'll make for many pleasant afternoons.

The parade of new Mozart CDs

* Requiem; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/Donald Runnicles, conductor (Telarc)

* Mass in C Minor; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmut Rilling, conductor (Hanssler Classic)

* Mozart the Mason; Jonathan Crow, violin; Douglas McNabney, viola; Matt Haimovitz, cello (Oxingale Records)

* Concertante; Freiburger Barockorchestra/Gottfried von der Goltz, conductor (Harmonia Mundi)

* Piano Concertos 14 and 21; Mozartean Players Classical Orchestra/Steven Lubin, fortepiano and conductor (Classical Surroundings)

* Violin Concertos 3-5; Andrew Manze, violin; English Concert (Harmonia Mundi)

* Violin Concertos 1-3; Europa Galante/ Fabio Biondi, violin and conductor (Virgin)

* Mozart: A Celebration (Sony BMG)

* Violin Concerto 3 and works by Schubert and Michael Haydn; Baibe Skride, violin (Sony BMG)

* Piano Concertos 14, 23 and 25; Jorge Federico Osorio, piano; Mozart-Haydn Festival Orchestra (Artek)

* Piano Concertos 17 and 20; Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Piotr Anderszewski, piano and conductor (Virgin)

* String Quintets K. 516 and 593; Prazak Quartet (Harmonia Mundi)

* String Quartets K. 465 and 499; Belcea Quartet (EMI)

* Piano Trios K. 502, 542 and 548; Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Daniel Muller-Schott, cello; Andre Previn, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

* Opera and Concert Arias; Elina Garanca, mezzo-soprano (Virgin)* Mozart in Egypt (Virgin)* Mozart: Das Gesamtwerk; various artists (Brilliant)