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The New Complete Edition
Various soloists, ensembles, conductors and orchestras
Decca & DG (200CD)
Record collectors and Mozart lovers were onto a good thing back in 1991 when Philips Classics commemorated the bicentenary of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus (on December 5, 1791) with the ambitious, 180-disc Complete Mozart Edition. Now Universal music, who inherited the defunct Philips catalogue, have topped even that with Mozart225, a lavishly annotated, immaculately curated 200-disc box set so impressive it’s worth acquiring even if you still own the earlier collection.
Where the original Complete Mozart focussed on the imposing Philips stable of artists – Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and Marriner for the symphonies, Brendel in the piano concertos, Uchida for sonatas, Colin Davis in the later operas – the new set is free to range the combined catalogues of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon as well, taking a more varied and stimulating look at the way we approach Mozart today.
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Perhaps the most striking difference is the new set’s acknowledgement of period instruments and the historically informed performance movement. Whereas in 1991 the likes of John Eliot Gardiner and Ton Koopman just about got a look in, they rule the roost in Mozart225 alongside Trevor Pinnock, Franz Brüggen and Christopher Hogwood (sharing the symphonies with Gardiner), while Arnold Östman and Charles Mackerras help essay a far broader survey of Mozart’s operatic output.
But if you have an aversion to original instruments – and the controversial choice for many will be dividing the bulk of the piano concertos between a pair of fortepianists (Robert Levin with Hogwood and Malcolm Bilsson with Gardiner) – the masterstroke is the generous selection of ‘supplementary’ performances in the new set. So neatly packed is this music onto the 200 discs, there is room to duplicate most of the concerti on traditional pianos with great Mozartians including Barenboim, Brendel, Schiff, Uchida and Maria João Pires (especially magical readings of Nos 17, 21 and 27 with Abbado). There’s even room for legendary accounts from the likes of Gilels, Bernstein and Curzon.
As the set is divided into four sections – chamber, orchestral, theatre and sacred (plus a final flurry of completions, fragments and works of dubious authority) – it’s worth taking a stroll through it all in sequence from the youthful, intimate and miniature towards the Empyrean of the final Requiem.
The journey begins with the five-year-old prodigy’s cheerful keyboard pieces scribbled down in his sister Nannerl’s copybook, here played on harpsichord and spinet by Erik Smith and Florian Birsak. The maturing of the composer’s voice on his chosen instrument switches to a modern piano, the chief labours undertaken by the distinguished trio of Ingrid Haebler, Mitsuko Uchida and Alfred Brendel. Given the concerti are all presented on fortepiano, one presumes these choices were expedients due to a lack of period performances in the Universal catalogue. No matter, there’s no shortage of grace and style here.
The early violin sonatas are more ‘authentic’, with Gérard Poulet on violin and Blandine Verlet on harpsichord before the big hitters line up for the mature masterpieces: Perlman, Hahn, Mutter, Steinberg and Grumiaux all take turns. Any tedium threatened by 80-minutes of violin and piano is offset by a neat chronological approach, which sees the performances peppered with works for piano duo and viola. Pianists include Argerich, Lupu, Schiff and Brautigam.
The bulk of the string quartets come from the Hagen Quartet – a benchmark set for a while now – with support from the Emersons, the Orlandos and the Melos. Fine work too in the trio departments from the Grumiaux Trio (occasionally sounding a little old-school) and the Beaux Arts (still among the finest interpretations). There are some delicious surprises too, like the Piano Trio in E, K542 with André Previn, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Daniel Müller-Schott or the “Kegelstatt” with James Levine, Karl Leister on clarinet and Wolfram Christ. Mozart’s most forward-thinking String Quintets, receive superlative performances from The Lindsay Quartet with Louise Williams and Patrick Ireland taking the extra viola lines.
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra shoulder most of the winsome Serenades and Divertimenti and there are some sparkling bonus discs of period performances as an add-on including contributions from Schiff on fortepiano and a sublime Clarinet Quintet under Hogwood. Five discs of Classic and Historic performances give you a chance to hear Haskil, Kempff, Horowitz, Sokolov, Curzon and the Amadeus Quartet, the Grillers and another glorious “Kegelstatt” with Stephen Kovacevich, Jack Brymer on clarinet and Patrick Ireland on viola.
On to the symphonies, and as a supplement to the period performances mentioned above you get alternatives to most major works from Abbado and his fine Orchestra Mozart. Violin concertos go to Mullova and Carmignola, with supplementary versions by Mutter and Hahn. The wind concertos (all on period instruments) are chronologically interspersed, making for some captivatingly programmed discs in their own rights. Another spirited highlight is a supplementary version of the Concerto for Two Pianos by the English Chamber Orchestra with Barenboim and Solti at the keyboards. Bonus performances feature, among many others, Szell, Ashkenazy, Bernstein, Britten and Vegh in classic repertoire.
Willi Boskovsky and his Wiener Mozart Ensemble were clearly the only available option for the dances (a bit of a marathon if you listen to all five discs back to back), and while they have a lightness of touch, the performances sound their age. Ottavio Dantone and his Accademia Bizantina, on the other hand, field a nice, crisp, up to date Eine Kleine and a jolly Musical Joke.
Most of the early operas are still in versions around in 1991 conducted by Leopold Hager, Colin Davis and Peter Schreier. They remain pretty good, but there are newer versions on other labels and the field is open for Universal to commission period updates somewhere down the track. There is, however, the magnificent Rousset Mitridate with Bartoli and Dessay. The big seven are offered in exceptional readings: Idomeneo (Gardiner – one of the finest opera recordings ever), Entführung (Hogwood), Figaro (Östman – though personally I’d have preferred Gardiner here), Don Giovanni (Nézet-Séguin), Così (Solti), Magic Flute (Abbado) and Clemenza di Tito (Mackerras).
Where the strength and depth of the Universal catalogue really shows is in the discs of alternative arias, insertion arias, concert arias and classic performances. It’s a case of “you name them, here they are” as a who’s who of the last 50 years of opera recordings fly past in a dazzling array of vocal glories.
The final box is a bit of a mix: a dozen discs of sacred choral (all worth a listen), Mozart’s arrangements of Handel (clarinets and all), other composer’s completions of unfinished Mozart, two discs of tantalising fragments, and five discs of dubious music, none of which is ever unappealing.
The 200 discs weigh in at over 10kg and come in an attractive box along with two hardback books containing essays by eminent Mozart scholars, accompanying booklets, a collection of facsimiles and associated artworks. With a plethora of works never before recorded, the set, pricey though it is, is unparalleled for its sheer quality. How can I be sure? Answer: I binged. Over 60 days, across Christmas and New Year, I listened to every single disc and can promise you I was never bored – not for a moment.
In short, Mozart225 is a remarkable achievement that, like the man himself himself, will surely stand the test of time.
Mozart 225, The New Complete Edition is out now on Universal. To find out how you could win a copy, click here.