A Robust Cup of Mozart

By Brian McCreath

There’s a traditional categorization of orchestras in this country, pretty roundly dismissed these days, of a Big Five. It probably made some sense a number of decades ago to consider the orchestras of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Boston as a cut above the rest. The fact that San Francisco, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, just to name a few, also had terrific ensembles with rich traditions didn’t seem to matter. As media and technology evolved, those Big Five were cemented in the public imagination as The Best of The Best.

There are excellent reasons to dismiss that notion of a Big Five. In addition to the current incarnations of each of the “other” orchestras mentioned above, those of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, and Baltimore have to be brought into the discussion of top rank orchestras, and I’m no doubt leaving out some others as well. And yet, there does remain a distinctive character to those Big Five orchestras.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra can, when asked, still generate the knife-edged electricity instilled while Reiner and Solti were conducting, and the Cleveland Orchestra retains their ability to form the deep, rich, ultra-unified geometric shapes cultivated by Szell and Dohnányi. The New York Philharmonic’s brightness, power, and virtuosity have been refreshed with Alan Gilbert’s commitment to new music. And I expect that something of the lushness of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic sound remains, though it’s apparently been sublimated somewhat following the move from the Academy of Music to Verizon Hall a few years ago.

Which brings us to our own Boston Symphony Orchestra and the rejuvenation of its historic sound upon the arrival of James Levine. There’s a grace to that sound, an ethereal way of spinning notes and phrases out of thin air. And that’s all while maintaining the ability to generate enormous power and energy.  That was abundantly evident in last year's CD release of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, which showed off the orchestra's French heritage at its best.  But now we can see how that legacy plays out in an arguably more striking way in a new recording of Mozart symphonies.

Given the historically informed, ultra-chiseled, earthy, and thinly textured quality of many Mozart symphony performances of the last several years, the BSO sound in this arena might seem outdated and misplaced. But what’s thrilling about the BSO Levine recording of five of those symphonies is that it’s all there: the grace and the fullness, but also the precision and the unity.

You’ll hear this recording from time to time on 99.5 All Classical; it’s too irresistible to leave on a shelf for too long. Tune in today at around 2pm for Mozart’s Symphony No. 18, and enjoy a tradition that's fully alive.

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