Classical music on CD: Mozart - Symphonies Nos 29, 33, 40 Orpheus Chamber Orchestra DG 453 425-2

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The Independent Culture
It is often said that the best a conductor can do for an orchestra is encourage them to listen to themselves, to each other. Orpheus are the best listeners. They've come to listen so well, they've no need of a conductor. Really? None? Well, there's no question that this 26-piece band play, relate, interact like a string quartet, that their reflexes are now so well attuned that they can turn phrases on a sixpence. But still I can't help feeling that the presence of a conductor (and I'm making the assumption here that we're talking about a conductor of substance) might just facilitate a slightly stronger collective identity.

Would I have known that these performances were conductorless? Probably not, though I have to say that, had I been fooled, I might have characterised the maestro in question as an energetic, keen-eared, but somewhat cool customer. The music-making is terrifically vital - make no mistake. There are no passengers in this band: the individuality, the personality and profile of their personnel ensures that every part is alive and kicking. Inner-parts leap from the page, the sense of momentum and climax is unerring. Symphony No 40, the popular G minor, is urgent and fearful, the palpitating ostinato in divisi violas at once disturbed and disturbing (how tired and predictable it can sound when carrying too much weight). It's a darkly operatic piece once more (is there a more anxious, searching development in all of Mozart than this first movement?).

Even the high-spirited finale (and just listen to those fiery exchanges between the upper and lower strings) sounds truculent. Which is not to say that Orpheus don't know how to enjoy themselves. Their engaging account of No 29 is full of charm and surprise (witness the high-wire antics of the horns in the finale). But I wonder if someone from outside their number might have coaxed a warmer and more compliant, a more single-minded, a more personal approach to the slow movements. I wonder.

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