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Performances

Mozart 250 [Courtesy of Classical Opera]
21 Jan 2016

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Mozart 250 [Courtesy of Classical Opera]

 

This ambitious ‘journey’ — which will not conclude until 2041! - began with an exploration of works composed in 1765, a year which was fortunate to offer gems such as J.C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria (Adriano in Siria). 1766 apparently delivers slimmer pickings. It was a little disconcerting that Artistic Director Ian Page’s ‘Welcome’ in the programme read like an ‘apologia’ — ‘In many ways, and for no discernible reason, 1766 seems to have been a less rich musical year than those either side of it.’ — and was accompanied by an apparent vindication of the programme, ‘we are not pretending that every work that we perform within MOZART 250 is a masterpiece’. But, there was much of interest in this varied programme, and the presence of names such as Vanhal, Beck and Guglielmi in the list of works to be performed added an intriguing ‘rarity’ factor too.

It was Mozart’s concert arias which, despite the composer’s youth — and that fact that 1766 was an itinerant year which saw him dashing between the cities of Europe with his sister Nannerl, to show off their prodigious talents — impressed most. Soprano Louise Adler, a current Associate Artist with the company, combined crystalline definition of the phrases with a warm, appealing tone in ‘Per pietà, bell’ idol mio’ (For pity’s sake, my beloved’), in which the two oboes (James Eastaway and Rachel Chaplin) engaged in a tender dialogue with the voice, enriching the colour palette. The sentiments of the final line, ‘Abbastanza il ciel mi fa’ — as Artaxerxes begs not to be charged with ingratitude, for Heaven has left him ‘unhappy and unlucky enough’ — were heightened by the superb contribution of horn player Roger Montgomery, in perfect unison with the voice, while the tight trills of the oboes and first violins demonstrated the young Mozart’s sharp eye for meaningful detail.

‘O temerario Arbace … Per quel paterno amplesso’ (Oh reckless Arbace … With that paternal embrace’ followed, in which the striking harmonic twists and instrumental textures of the accompanied recitative (the first surviving example by Mozart) confirmed the composer’s innate dramatic instinct. The strength of characterisation was enhanced by Alder’s confident delivery, distinctly off-the-score. The soloist’s rapid cascades, which launch unexpectedly, and rather paradoxically, with the line ‘Placami l’idol mio’ (console my beloved), were fluid and bright, conveying urgency; and, while I felt that Alder held back at times, the delicacy of her high pianissimos was impressive. I wasn’t convincing by Page’s tempo, though; overly brisk, it denied us the subtle grace of Mozart’s triple-time, lilting phrases.

We had to wait for the final bars of ‘Sento, ahimè, nè so ch sia’ (I feel, alas, and I don’t know what it is) from Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi’s opera buffa, Lo spirito di contradizione - which was premièred in Venice in 1766 — for Alder to unleash the full power of her soprano; she fittingly evoking the fevered desperation the Countess Flaminia who, deceived by the dastardly Don Cesarino, vows to remain single and laments her fate: ‘Meschinella già deliro,/ Il respire più non ho’ (now I am a delirious wretch, and I can breathe no more). Alder varied the vocal colours effectively, accompanied by the palpitating pizzicatos of cello and first violin — her ‘trembling heart’. J. C. Bach’s pleasure garden song, ‘Ah, why shou’d love with tyrant sway’, was delivered with simple directness, a smooth line and nimbleness; and the interplay between voice and strings in the closing phrase was charming.

Tenor Benjamin Hulett, a former Associate Artist, also presented a Mozart concert aria, but though he made a valiant attempt to suggest earnestness and nobility, he could not make a convincing case for the repetitive, unctuous eulogising of the Licenza (homage) ‘Or chi il dover m’astringe … Tal e cotanti sono’ (Now that day obliges me … So great and so many), which Mozart composed to mark Sigismund von Schrattenbach’s ascension to the Archbishopric of Salzburg. Haydn was represented by the ‘Et incarnates est’ from his Missa Cellensis, which Hulett sang with poise and profundity; he was relaxed in the higher-lying passages but also found a surprising gravity and intensity in the lower register. The long lines of the second verse showcased his confident breathing, while the chromatic inflections of the third verse, and its large leaps, demonstrated Hulett’s technical assurance and good intonation.

Most interesting of Hulett’s contributions was Niccolò Jomelli’s ‘De’ miei desire ormai … Che faro?’ (Now I see myself … What shall I do?’) from the composer’s opera Il Vologeso. The complexity and inventiveness of the upper strings during the recitative suggested a composer striving to use all the resources at his disposal to capture an evolving emotional discourse — as the Roman General Lucio Vero recognises the misguidedness of his attempts to force the defiant Berenice, wife of the defeated Parthian King, to love him. Hulett wove the General’s distressed fragments into convincing extended phrases, and this performance made one eager for the opportunity to hear Classical Opera’s performance of the entire opera at the Cadogan Hall in April ( Il Vologeso).

Instrument works performed by the twenty-piece Orchestra of Classical Opera completed the programme. It was good to have the opportunity to hear Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Symphony in G minor in which Page encouraged the players to make the most of the dynamic and textural contrasts. The Adagio placed Eastaway’s beautifully shaped solo above the ‘tick-tock’ pizzicato of the lower strings; in the Trio of the third movement there were appealing melodic exchanges. Page worked hard to create energy and vigour in the fast outer movements, but while the pianissimo beginning of the Finale: Allegro pulsed excitedly, I’d have liked Page to have determined consistently upon a two-in-a-bar pulse: his intermittent reversions to four beats held things back. Similarly the horns might have been even more unrestrained, to convey the exuberance of the movement. The first movement of Franz Ignaz Beck’s Symphony in D was also characterised by contrast: first rhetorical chords, then quiet descending scales, which grew into increasingly busy counterpoint culminating in the explosive entrance of the horns. But, overall the movement lacked lightness and air, and I longed for Page to take a few more risks with tempo and articulation.

We had symphonies from Mozart, too, beginning with the Symphony in Bb No.5 in which there was not always a good balance between upper and lower voices, the bass line occasionally overpowering. Here, as elsewhere, there was some strong individual playing: horns were vibrant at the start, the strings’ trills were vivacious, and there was grace in the antiphonal motivic exchanges between the first and second violins. Yet, there was often an unwelcome weightiness, and the Andante was heavy and ponderous. Mozart’s ‘Old Lambach’ Symphony in G Major K.45a concluded the concert, prefaced by Page’s inauspicious account of its premiere, at which the composer’s father, Leopold, complained that the music and players were equally dreadful! On this occasion, the performance was certainly not lamentable; and Page did his best to draw forth the moments of musical interest, though once more I felt that the results were worthy rather than truly engaging.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Classical Opera: Ian Page — conductor, Louise Alder — soprano, Benjamin Hulett — tenor, the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Mozart: Symphony No.5 in B flat major K.22; Niccolò Jommelli: ‘’De’ miei desiri ormai … Che farò?’ from Il Vologeso; Mozart: ‘Per pietà, bell’ idol mio’ K.78, ‘O temerario Arbace … Per quel paterno amplesso’ K.79; Johann Baptist Vanhal: Symphony in G minor; Haydn: ‘Et incarnatus est’ from Missa Cellensis; Pietro Guglielmi: ‘Povera me! … Sento, ahimè, nè so che sia’ from Lo spirito di contradizione; Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphony in D major Op.4 No.1, I. Allegro maestoso; J. C. Bach: ‘Ah, why should love with tyrant sway’; Mozart: ‘Or che il dover ... Tali e cotanti sono’, K.36 Symphony in G major K45a (Lambach). Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 19th January 2016.

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