Few pieces of music are more familiar than Mozart's Symphony No. 41, a.k.a. the Jupiter Symphony. But let not familiarity lead to contempt, says Rob Kapilow, who launched his series of lecture CDs, What Makes It Great? (Vanguard), with discussions of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony and the composer's equally familiar Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
"In a strange way, the music we know the best, we know the least," Kapilow says. "One of the things I've often been amazed by in Mozart is that, in my opinion, he's the subtlest composer who ever managed to become world-famous. The music is so deceptively simple, yet it's never as simple as it sounds."
The Jupiter Symphony will be performed in this weekend's opening masterworks concerts by the Florida Orchestra, with music director Stefan Sanderling on the podium. It was Mozart's last symphony, composed along with Nos. 39 and 40 in six weeks in the summer of 1788.
The unpredictability of Symphony No. 41 (which Woody Allen once said proved the existence of God) inspires Kapilow, a composer and conductor, to make nonmusical analogies. "It's like those Mondrian paintings where everything is a little irregular. It's not quite a square, it's not quite a rectangle, all the proportions are a little bit off," he says.
The symphony culminates in the amazing five-part counterpoint of the finale. Kapilow likens it to a hologram because "on one level, it is simple, but then on another level, it isn't. It keeps flashing back and forth."
Kapilow says the coda of the symphony's last movement, where all five themes combine, is the quintessential Mozart moment.
"You could listen to it all your life and just think it sounds very bustling and energetic," he says. "Only when you listen closely do you realize that five completely independent voices combine in eight different ways. And when it stops being contrapuntal and just merges into regular writing, you're barely even aware that you've just left this staggering, Guinness Book of World Records moment, it's so effortless."
There is certainly no shortage of recordings of the Jupiter Symphony, in a wide range of styles. Kapilow's CD has a middle-of-the-road sort of performance by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Felix Prohaska conducting.
In the newly published The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings, Allan Kozinn recommends the old-school, lushly romantic treatment of Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, along with bassoon and clarinet concertos (EMI Classics).
Two recent Mozart recordings are worth a listen. Apollo's Fire, Jeannette Sorrell's Baroque orchestra, gives a brisk period-instrument performance of the Jupiter and Haffner symphonies (Koch). The Orchestra of St. Luke's, Donald Runnicles conducting, plays modern instruments, but its performance is informed by period style in a CD that also includes Symphony No. 39 (St. Luke's Collection).
_ JOHN FLEMING