A triple treat from Mozart

Special to The Times

The Mozart 250th birthday year has finally arrived, but then isn't every year Mozart's year?

His music is a staple of classical radio, and despite the shriveling of the classical record industry, there is no shortage of Mozart recordings in shops. In a recent poll of American music critics, Mozart still ranks first on the list of favorite composers. In Austria, Mozart has long been one of the driving engines of the economy; his portrait is even on a euro coin.

Nevertheless, the Mozart year is bringing some out-of-the-ordinary events -- and one of them was a rare chance to hear the entire sequence of the composer's last three great symphonies, Nos. 39, 40 and 41, at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night, done to a turn by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique.

This is a period-performance orchestra with a big difference, able to play with power and virtuosity well beyond that of most of the pack. Although period ensembles tend to sound dimmer and fuzzier than conventional orchestras in the truth-telling acoustics of Disney Hall, this one blazed at a full, satisfying volume. The valve-less brasses were crisp and militant, the period winds sounded almost indistinguishable from "modern" ones. Even the strings, not as raspy as in some other period bands, projected.

The orchestra is Gardiner's vehicle, and he likes to drive it hard and fast. Occasionally he has pushed too hard; I recall a frenetic Beethoven's Ninth in New York a decade ago with this group that he brought in less than an hour. But this time, while there was plenty of bustle, there was no feeling of overdrive, with room for expression within the steady pulse. Even at Gardiner's relentless pacing, it was amazing how much emotion he could wring from the Symphony No. 40, with the slow movement extended dramatically by including all repeats.

Most remarkable was the performance of the Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter"), in which Gardiner had everyone except the cellos, basses and timpani play while standing. That tilted the balance strongly toward the brass, but you could detect more inner detail -- and it was a genuine thrill to hear the finale's fugues played with such headlong, whizzing precision. If George Szell, architect of the Cleveland Orchestra's golden age in the mid-20th century, had lived to conduct a period orchestra, it might have sounded something like this.

As an encore, Gardiner added a brooding movement from Mozart's first symphony, penned at the wise old age of 8.

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