This four disc set gives us fine readings of later Mozart symphonies, 31 to 41. I agree with other positive reviewers: This set stands out in a very, very, very crowded field, so far as the commercial recordings catalog goes. I didn't plop it down right on the fav shelves right away, but that delay was only because I wanted to play and play and play these readings. So, this Mozart late symphonies set goes right up high, along with Menuhin and Sinfonia Varsova, Colin Davis and Dresden, Szell and Cleveland, Bruno Walter, and Klemperer.
Let me pull back for a word about the band. Orchestra di Padova e del Venuto is more or less a newish regional band in Italy. I forget exactly what disc was my first early encounter with them; I do recall that I thought they had more musical home work to do than not. The band in that first spin sounded tonal heft but little - very little - discipline. Ensemble was a scramble to the bar lines. Phrasing was just a mess, with some passing hints here and there, of better things to come, if ever, whenever, however. By the time these Mozart recordings were captured (1996), the band players had made notable progress - perhaps thanks to the orchestra-building inspiration of conductor Peter Maag? The instrumental sound had jelled, firstly. Ensemble across strings, woodwinds, brass was tight, alert, and above all, musically purposeful. Phrasing had been improved to minor miracle status. One of the many challenges you get playing Mozart is pretty much constant instrumental exposure. Every player has to be on point, no hiding back in the section rows. Balancing among strings-woodwinds-brass has to be clear, clean, and expressively shaped. Mozart once wrote to his father that his music had something for everybody in his audiences - popular sounding bits, learned techniques, vigor, repose, and above all that wealth of detailed, humanistic emotional genius in whose service we continue to cherish the composer.
The dominant musical impression is that these players and this conductor love Mozart. Simply, Love. Mozart. The bubbling energies they capture in this series often sing out passing associations with the Mozart operas, particularly the da Ponte triad (Cosi fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni). The drama is freshly minted, if such a thing is possible by now, given several centuries of concert hall exposure for these last ten symphonies, especially for the late, great final six. Maag's vigor has enough punch that, actually, I sometimes feared he would go over the Mozart cliffs, and make his readings far too Beethoven-ish to suit. Not so, though Maag in his subtle ways does let us know that Beethoven is coming up, sooner rather than later. What saves Maag's brinkmanship so far as this free vigor goes is probably a matter of dinner discussion (while listening, of course). My hunch is that Maag's creative ways with pace and phrasing keeps our ears firmly focused on hearing his Mozart as Mozart. Maag was justly renowned for his way with Mozart; his depth of insight is fully on display in this set. One can imagine other bands and other conductors doing Mozart, too, but none wiser nor more involved with every single note (adding up to every single passing phrase, adding up to wondrous whole musical paragraphs).
The conductor was a spiritual seeker his whole life. An erstwhile student of philosophy and world religions. I would not gainsay or burlesque any global listener who opined that spiritual lights and depths do come across, beloved and lovely, in these Mozart readings.
Our venue is Auditorium Modigliani in Padua, Italy. The engineers have been diligent and careful about their arts and sciences. The band and the composer come through, resounding. Though this band is smaller, it never sounds too small, partly thanks to Maag and the players (and the engineers?) always bringing out a solid bottom, never muddy.
As it happens, a complete Beethoven symphony set is also available, plus a Mendelssohn symphony set with the Spanish orchestra in Madrid. I'm checking both sets out, after this super Mozart set. Five stars.