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Classical Opera Company: MOZART 250
18 Jan 2017

MOZART 250: the year 1767

Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos … this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.

Classical Opera Company: MOZART 250

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Page

Photo credit: Ben Ealovega

 

The music of the 11-year-old Mozart did not, however, dominate this performance at the Wigmore Hall. For while the prodigious feats of the musical wunderkind were certainly feted across Europe at this time - when he was just 6 years old, Francis I of Vienna referred to him as ‘ein kleine hexenmeister’ (a little master-wizard) - there was still some way to go before the teenager would find his mature creative voice. The programme was instead a smorgasbord of arias, secular and sacred, by composers both renowned and relatively obscure, set alongside three of Mozart’s adolescent offerings. The talented young singers who joined Page and his period-instrument orchestra struggled to make something meaningful of the multi-flavoured mix of miniatures.

There were some strong performances to admire, though, and some little-known treasures to enjoy, not least the duetting of soprano Gemma Summerfield and Emilia Benjamin’s viola da gamba in ‘Frena le belle lagrime’ from Carl Friedrich Abel’s opera Sifari. This pasticcio, on which Abel collaborated with Baldassare Galuppi and Johann Christian Bach, was presented on 5 March 1767 at the King’s Theatre Haymarket as a benefit performance for the celebrated castrato Tommaso Guarducci, with Abel - a skilled viola da gamba and viol player - himself playing the solo part. The text of the aria is taken from Metastasio’s L’eroe cinese.

Summerfield’s well-shaped line and variety of colour aptly conveyed the protagonist’s attempt to resist the flood of ‘soft affections’ and the ‘throbs’ of love which the tears of the beholden inspire, and she varied the vocal nuance to match Abel’s unusual modulations. Voice and viola da gamba trilled consonantly at the close of the first section; perhaps more elaborate vocal ornamentation would have enlivened later verses? Benjamin’s preludes and solo commentaries were eloquent but frequently, even though the strings were muted, the viola da gamba struggled to be heard. More animation in the second section, which was accompanied by alert pizzicato, might have generated greater dramatic interest.

Summerfield opened the evening’s vocal items with an aria by a composer unfamiliar to me: Florian Leopold Gassmann. Appointed to succeed Gluck as ballet composer in Vienna in 1763, and the teacher of Salieri, Gassmann was principally admired - by such 18th-century musicians as Burney, Gerber and Mozart - for his comic operas, which received performances in places as far apart as Naples, Lisbon, Vienna and Copenhagen. Amore e Psiche, which was first performed on 5 October 1767 to celebrate the ill-fated marriage of Archduchess Maria Josepha to King Ferdinand of Naples, reflects the influence of Gluck’s operatic ‘reforms’ of the early 1760s. ‘Bella in un vago viso’ - in which Zephyrus tries to reassure Apollo, who is alarmed by the disappearance of the weeping bride-to-be Psyche, with the dubious argument that women are prettier when they cry than when they smile - has a full complement of woodwind, and Page made much of the appealing interplay between voice and accompaniment. Summerfield again crafted a warm, fluid line, but she seemed a little hesitant at times and ‘pick-ups’ and tempi did not always feel settled and secure.

Bass-baritone Ashley Riches joined Summerfield after the interval for Mozart’s cantata, Grabmusik, which is reported to have been composed when the young prodigy, suspected of putting his name to works penned by his father, was shut away by the Prince of Salzburg with just some manuscript paper for company and told to prove his compositional prowess. The resulting work is believed to be this cantata, which was first performed in Salzburg Cathedral on 7 April 1767. It takes the form of an earnest dialogue between a departed Soul, which feels guilt for Christ’s death, and an Angel who offers absolution. Riches’ recitative was anguished and expressive; he handled the difficult coloratura with assurance, snarling at the bitterness of death, and his first aria was as fiery as a revenge aria - running through roulades, plummeting thunderously. The flexibility of the line was fore-grounded by some lucid string playing. Summerfield’s consolatory air - originally intended to be sung by a boy - was characteristically eloquent, imbued with gravity. The pair blended well in their duet, Riches accepting the Angel’s instruction with a gentleness of tone which conveyed resigned content.

Riches’ solo aria was ‘Sopra quel capo indegno’ from J.C. Bach’s Carattaco, the fourth of the five operas that he wrote for London and which was heard at the King’s Theatre shortly before Sifari. In this aria Teomanzio rages against the perfidious Queen Cartismandua, whose deceit has led to the Britons’ defeat at the hands of the Romans. Riches, impressively ‘off score’, was grandoliquent without straying into bombast.

Haydn’s Stabat Mater was one of the first sacred works that he composed in his new position as Kapellmeister of the Esterházy court; Riches and tenor Stuart Jackson presented two of its movements. The orchestral drama of ‘Flammis orci ne succendar’ vividly conjured the flames of hell and showcased Riches’ extensive registral range; ‘Vidit suum’, by contrast, allowed us to enjoy the sweet softness of Jackson’s voice, his phrases being poignantly echoed by the strings. In contrast, it was a dry tremolando that set the scene for the urgent recitative which precedes Gluck’s ‘No, crudel; non posso vivere’, in which Admeto laments the self-sacrifice Alceste has made in order to save his life. Jackson was precise but his tone was somewhat unvarying, and at times the projection seemed forced.

In the two orchestral works presented the instrumental playing was robust and dynamic, though occasionally rough-edged. Arne’s three-movement first symphony was rhythmically lithe and energised by the strings’ impressive bustling and swirling. After some insecure intonation at the start of the opening Allegro, Mozart’s Symphony No.6 settled into a charming, colourful Andante whose lyrical nature signaled its origins: it is an adaptation of a duet from Mozart’s first opera Apollo and Hyacinthus (1766), ‘Natus cadit’, which Summerfield and Jackson performed with grace and fluency to provide an unusually gentle close to the programme.

More substantial Mozart juvenilia will follow later this year. Classical Opera will present two of Mozart’s works from 1767 at St John’s Smith Square: a new production of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots which they recorded in 2013, and a fully staged Apollo and Hyacinthus alongside a staging of the Grabmusik. In addition, the company will return to the Wigmore Hall to perform Mozart’s first four keyboard concertos - composed between April and June 1767 - with South African fortepianist Kristina Bezuisdenhout. A new recording with Sophie Bevan, Perfido!, featuring concert arias by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven will also be released in May.

Claire Seymour

Classical Opera: Ian Page - conductor, Gemma Summerfield - soprano, Stuart Jackson - tenor, Ashley Riches - bass-baritone.

Mozart: Symphony No.6 in F major K43; Gassmann: ‘Bella in un vago viso’ (from Amore e Psiche); Gluck ‘No, crudel, non posso vivere’ (fromAlceste); J.C. Bach: ‘Sopra quell capo indegno’ (from Carattaco); Abel: ‘Frena le belle lagrime’ (from Sifari); Mozart: Grabmusik K42; Haydn: No.6 Vidit suum, No.11 Flammis orci (from Stabat Mater HXXbis; Arne: Symphony No.1 in C major; Mozart: ‘Natus cadit atque Deus’ (from Apollo et Hyacinthus K38)

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 17th January 2016.

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