This is a nice box set from SONY, which contains reissues of some smaller-scaled Mozart from Colin Davis, along with his splendid collection of Overtures - all from the 1990s. Even though it's a mixed bag (mostly the fault of RCA itself), there is still much to enjoy.
I've got to start with a grumble, though. By my estimation, SONY has a 50/50 success rate with these wonderful budget box sets regarding content. Sometimes they get it right and include everything possible within a given theme or attempt at a comprehensive collection. And then sometimes, they inexplicably make such a blunder by omitting something so obvious it leaves the collector scratching our head. In this case, 'Colin Davis conducting Mozart with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra' includes everything I could find EXCEPT for his reading of the Requiem, with the same forces, for the same label, during the same year (1991) as some of the others included here. Why is it excluded? There is no logical reason for it whatsoever. And it's simply infuriating.
But getting to what we do have, typical of Colin Davis we have good and we have not so good. When he's inspired, there is a spark to his music-making which counters (and compliments) his more characteristically warm - though delightful - singing musicality, which can be most appealing. When he's not, he tends to sound rather bland, and sometimes just plain boring - albeit in a somewhat smiling way.
Curiously (and interestingly), for these Mozart readings, RCA seems to match Davis's mood every step of the way. Beginning with the earliest recorded of these, in 1991/2, the sound is dark, over-reverberant and lacking sparkle. And, predictably, Davis sounds pretty bland. Funny how those seem to go hand in hand time and again. Most of this material (including the Bassoon Concerto) was recorded live, which may contribute to the lifeless sound.
The Serenades suffer the most, where the sound is a swampy mess and, irritatingly, applause is retained. And while the Bassoon Concerto and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik are actually pretty good readings, the Gran Partita is especially dreary. Tempos drag in every section (until the Finale, which sounds hectic in comparison) and the recording is so thick and heavy the entire affair is buried under the weight of it all. But all of these performances are well-played, with the possible exception of the oboe, with an overripe, sickly-sweet vibrato, which never varies, and after a while begins to sound almost queasy. However, adrenaline and joy are in rather short supply (especially considering these are "live"), and RCA's muddy recording is unhelpfully transferred to disc at an unusually low volume.
But there are high points. By the time we reach 1993, Davis seems to come alive, as do the RCA engineers. We get a splendid Clarinet Concerto (sandwiched in on Disc 1) with Karl-Heinz Steffens playing a real basset-clarinet. This is a studio recording, and interestingly sounds more spontaneous than the "live" performances of the Serenades. It's full of life, energy and joy, and is really quite engaging - aided by quick, alert tempos. However, I could do without his propensity for honking those lowest notes on his extended-range clarinet. We can hear them just fine without the unnatural boost. But the recorded sound is much cleaner and lively than in the earlier sessions, making this one of the highlights of the entire box set.
Best of all, however, is the collection of Overtures on Disc 4, recorded with the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1998. This orchestra exhibits a precision of articulation and invigoration almost completely missing in Munich - helped enormously by the extra clarity and openness of the recorded sound. It's amazing to hear such an improvement in sound, which is now clear and clean within a dimensional, realistically defined acoustic. I've long considered this set of Overtures one of the best in the catalog, an opinion affirmed anew listening to it again here.
SONY abandoned their ubiquitous 24-bit remastering process for these budget boxes a couple years ago, and it is sorely missed here. If nothing else, that process helped to stabilize recording transfer levels, making a more even volume setting across all recordings included. It also (usually) provided a bit of extra clarity. Both of these characteristics suffer in this current box. I was constantly having to adjust the volume setting from recording to recording, disc to disc. And, as noted above, much of this material is impossibly dark and mushy, where some extra clarity would have been entirely beneficial.
Complaints aside, I'm thrilled to see SONY continue to produce these extraordinarily fun and treasurable budget box sets. That they are not as well-produced as they used to be is lamentable. However, at the end of the day, I enjoyed all of this music - faults and all.