BSO charts Mozart's progress
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's premature death and prolific output render the temptation to map a compressed version of a full life's trajectory onto his 35-year span almost irresistible. But playing to a healthy Valentine's Day crowd the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in the second of this month's three all-Mozart programs under music director James Levine, made a case for accelerated biography, performing four symphonies - composed within 16 months - that nonetheless left the composer far from where he started.
In the first three symphonies, all dating from the summer of 1772, Mozart seems to noticeably evolve: One could even track individual musical ideas transforming from facile to functional. The Andante of the E-flat major Symphony No. 19 (K. 132) cadences with non sequitur triplets - decorative divisions of the beat into three rather than two parts - neither foreshadowed nor integrated. At the other extreme, the D-major Symphony No. 20 (K. 133) almost indiscriminately saturates both its slow movement and its finale with such three-note figures. But in the A-major Symphony No. 21 (K. 134), the Minuet's unobtrusive shifts between double and triple rhythmic arithmetic expertly vary and extend the four-bar phrases.
The performances seemed to chart a similar path from brashness to maturity. No. 19 was heavily marked, even a little raw, with weighty, forceful bowing from the reduced string complement and high-contrast dynamic juxtapositions. In No. 20, forward momentum increased as accents hit with more point and less impact; No. 21 featured more legato bowing, more transparent layering, more gradations of volume. Still, all were interpretively lean, light on rubato, and true to Mozart's terraced dynamics, stacked blocks of loud and soft.
If the summer of 1772 showed a steady advance, the Symphony No. 25 in G minor (K. 183), from the fall of 1773, sounds like a giant leap. Inspired by the high-drama "Sturm und Drang" fad, Mozart works a grander canvas, both the minor modality and a bassoon-augmented wind section providing heft and depth. The orchestra's performance took on added, proto-Romantic dimensions in response: Dynamic shifts surged instead of stepped, phrases showed more shape and flexibility. Where, in the concert's first half, Levine was primarily concerned with drawing energy and vigor from the group, here the goal was fluency of detail. The sense of the 17-year-old Mozart stepping out as a mature composer was palpable. It's almost like he knew he was pressed for time.