Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra (Boni) – ‘Mozart: Symphonies’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Collectively known as ‘The Symphones’ , the music on this disc, which brings together Symphonies No.5 ‘The Hague’ and No.29, along with ‘Serenata notturna’ and ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’, was performed by the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra (formerly known as the Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra), an ensemble comprised of members of the world-famous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Pentatone Classics is made up of various recording executives who used to work for Philips. Their recording technicians are from Polyhymnia International, a company made up of people who engineered Philips’ recordings in the past. Thus, this new hybrid SACD, which might at first glance appear to be unknown artists on an unknown label, is actually a bunch of well-seasoned professionals doing what they do best.

The relative newcomer among the bunch is the young Italian conductor, Marco Boni, but even he has experience, having led this ensemble since 1995. The results reflect this comfort, though the performances remain fresh and vital. The players’ ensemble experience lends the music a gorgeous sheen, bordering on the luxurious in a few places, which may raise an eyebrow among listeners more accustomed to hearing this music played by starchy period-instrument groups. But Boni shows an awareness of historical playing styles, without obsessively underlining them. Thus Boni’s Mozart lands about halfway between the warm, old-fashioned Concertgebouw readings of Mozart led by Josef Krips and the more recent dramatic and daring ones by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. That relative comfort level means that there are occasional patches where things go on autopilot, but, happily, these are few.

Although the Symphony No. 29 is the largest piece on this SACD, and ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ the most famous, the real scene stealer is the delightful ‘Serenata notturna’, K. 239. For many years, I had not heard a performance or recording to surpass the lovely one by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. But this one does. It offers as much sweet beauty and sleek charm as the Marriner, but also features more lively wit. Here special praise should be made of the high-resolution recording, which captures a very tactile sound from the playful timpani in the first movement, particularly in the stereo mix. The timpani do not sound excessively highlighted, but yet one can almost “feel” the texture of the parchment drumhead. In the multi-channel mix, the dramatically wider soundstage pushes the timpani much further back into the depths of the recording space, losing some of the impact of the stereo SACD layer. The regular CD-compatible stereo layer is fine, though without the extra presence of the SACD stereo sound.

In Symphony No. 29 itself, Boni’s amiable approach again puts him into competition with Marriner, but this time I think Marriner holds his ground, even if only just barely. Like Marriner, Boni has a knack for finding the right touch to let this music unfold joyously. Boni’s strength is that he avoids overly calculating his charm. The only weakness is that a little more characterization here and there from the players wouldn’t have hurt, but one can hardly blame Boni for having the taste to let this fine ensemble play without excessive interference from the podium. Marriner’s grace wins out in the first movement, but Boni prevails in the second, with cleaner and more attentive articulation in the strings. The Menuetto is a tie – Marriner’s fuller oboe sound providing greater pungency, but Boni’s phrasing keeping the trio interesting. The final movement is a joy, taken at a decent clip. Boni and company are certainly more flexible than the Vienna Philharmonic was for James Levine in his Deutsche Grammophon recording from about a decade ago. For those wanting a version that foregoes charm in favor of drama, the Teldec recording by Nikolaus Harnoncourt is worth investigating, although its glaring recording takes some tolerance. An even greater performance in the grand manner is Jeffrey Tate’s with the English Chamber Orchestra on EMI. I do feel, however, that a lofty “symphonic” approach is not ideal for this freshest of Mozart’s symphonies.

The Symphony No. 5, K. 22, is a work from Mozart’s youth, no doubt included here because of its Dutch connection, being first presented in The Hague in 1766 when Mozart was age ten. Unlike some of his other early symphonies, this is an original Mozart piece, and though it is no masterpiece, it is worth hearing. The performance is energetic and graceful, remaining poised in the melancholy slow movement. The only other recording I have of the work is one made by Erich Leinsdorf and the London Philharmonic in the early days of stereo for Westminster. It is very alert and full of character, but the recording seems very crude in comparison to this, and the LPO of the late 1950’s is outclassed by present company.

Competition is heady in ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ and there are many approaches available. Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony, on Sony, are warm and inviting with a fairly large complement of strings – and a rather bovine amble to some of the tempos (not to mention a rather boomy recording). George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, also on Sony, are energetic and poised, even occasionally smiling, especially in the finale, which Szell relates to Mozart’s comic operas. The later Cleveland recording of this work by Christoph von Dohnanyi on Decca is not nearly as good. Dohnanyi is alert in the first movement, impatient in the second, but just going through the motions after that, and the recording is dim and veiled. A special nod goes to the Erato recording from twenty years ago by Raymond Leppard and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which is poised and gentle in the flowing Romanza, rustic in the Menuetto and high-spirited elsewhere. My favorite remains Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna. They are vigorous and imaginative, taking every repeat and featuring a meltingly romantic slow movement. In this recording, Boni’s Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra doesn’t sound much smaller than the full string sections used by Walter and Szell but Boni keeps the textures clean and the argument moving along in most places, although his finale lacks the wit of Szell or Leppard. His second movement Romance doesn’t flow as seductively as Harnoncourt’s or Leppard’s, nor does it move with as light a grace as most of the other slow movements on this recording, but the following Menuetto scores for being light on its feet. Like Harnoncourt, Boni slows down for the trio, but his change is not as extreme as Harnoncourt’s abrupt gear shifting.

How to best describe the handsome sound of this recording? Perhaps I could borrow the metaphor Nick Satullo used in reviewing the Alanis Morissette album under rug swept for High Fidelity Review, and say that it has a presence like the scent and warmth of fresh-baked bread. High-resolution recordings reproduce the “feel” of instruments, whereas regular digital recording just takes a photo of the music – granted, a very crisp, colorful picture, but for all that, just a flat photo. If there’s any flaw to the recorded sound here, it is that it is a little bright, slightly – very slightly – lacking on the bass end of the spectrum. Judging by the realism and warmth of the sound, I would guess that this brightness is typical of the natural acoustics of the Waalse Kirk in Amsterdam, and not due to any manipulation by the engineers. Even on the regular CD layer, this recording sounds beautiful, but the SACD layer gives it a wonderful three-dimensional depth. The surround sound mix opens up the soundstage very impressively without overdoing the rear channel ambiance. As noted above, the diffusion of sound in the multi-channel mix distances the timpani a bit, but this remains a beautiful recording. Pentatone’s partnership with Polyhymnia International could well make them a force to reckon with in the SACD market. Warmly recommended.

Note: This SACD has just been re-released in the US by Pentatone’s distributor, Telarc, after a recall due to a mislabeling problem. Please see the relevant news article, Telarc Releases Corrected SACD of Mozart Symphonies, in our SACD news section.