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Classical Opera, 20th anniversary concert at the Barbican Hall
11 Oct 2017

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

Classical Opera, 20th anniversary concert at the Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anna Devin

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega


Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation was a fitting opener, presenting as it does both mysterious obscurity - what Charles Burney described as ‘organised confusion’ - and the explosive brilliance of the birth of Light. Here, sharply defined woodwind sparkled tantalisingly within the sonic darkness; the slightly raw horn sound and the hard edge of the timpani evoked an unruliness which was swept aside by the cleansing power of the fortissimo C-major chord which heralds the blaze of the fire of heaven - a truly divine musical moment. Bass-baritone’s Henry Waddington’s ‘And in the beginning’ was coloured by quite liberal vibrato, slightly at odds with the orchestral delicacy and reticence, and the Classical Opera Chorus’s gentle sotto voce delivery of ‘And the spirit of God mov’d upon the face of the waters’, but subsequently Waddington was a bolstering presence alongside tenor Stuart Jackson (as Uriel).

Ian Page had clearly striven for continuity and links between these first-part items. The programme explained - in a sort of musical Chinese whispers - that Haydn’s librettist, Baron Gottfried van Swieten had been a driving force behind Mozart’s interest in baroque music in his later life and was in possession of an admirable library of scores from which Mozart created re-orchestrations of several works including ‘Leidenschaften stilt und weckt Musik’ from Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. Jonathan Byers’ cello obbligato was the embodiment of Classical eloquence, while soprano Anna Devin allied a sumptuous tone to a lean musical line. The ensemble was not always ‘perfect’ - I wondered how much time the performers had had to get used to the Hall and its acoustic - but there was much to captivate. I’d have liked a few more consonants from Devin in the first movement of Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate but there was terrific rhythmic verve, aided by some sparky oboe playing.

The entry of the oboes also added greatly to the dignified gentility of the March which precedes Idomeneo’s ‘Accogli, oh re del mar’, from Act 3 of Mozart’s opera seria. The men of the chorus delivered a very focused unison above the vibrant string pizzicato, and Jackson’s phrasing was both earnest and flexible as his private feelings, in the words of Mozart scholar Julian Rushton, are ‘subsumed within the collective, ritual solution to the nation’s agony’.

The first half concluded with Beethoven’s Aria and Chorus, ‘Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht’ from the composer’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, a work which Beethoven himself never got to hear. Once again, beautiful oboe and bassoon solos imbued the performance with real elegance; indeed, the woodwind rather ‘outshone’ the strings throughout the evening, though I think this may have been because there had not been opportunity to really get the measure of the acoustics of the Hall - filled with a hearty audience - during rehearsal. With Claudia Huckle indisposed, Anna Devin stepped in at short notice, and joined with the chorus to create compelling impetus and joy through the gradual expansion of the sound-scape. The women of the chorus sounded a little strident and rough-edged at times but this did not prevent us going full-circle, with another ascent towards the light.

These musical items were interspersed with short poems, for, as Page reminded us, ‘Words have a powerful effect on us and can play an important part in influencing how we experience music’. Given that for the musical items we had both original language texts and translations in the programme booklet - which, with characteristic comprehensiveness and detail, informed us of both the contextual history and musical detail of the works performed - and English surtitles, it seemed a little odd not to include the poetry texts in the programme; especially as the reader, Barbara Flynn, was positioned on stage right and provided with neither a lectern nor ‘formal’ presentational folder. Thus, there was an air of casualness about the poetry readings which certainly was not present for the musical elements of the evening. Though there was a ‘thread’ of music connecting the poems by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (Ode: ‘We are the music-makers’) and Peter Porter’s ‘Three Poems for Music’, I struggled to link in e. e. cummings’ ‘who knows if the moon’s a balloon’ and Robert Frost’s ‘For Once, Then, Something’, with its questions about what it means to see ourselves, as we ‘kneel’, always ‘wrong to the light’, into a coherent ‘concept’. Given Page’s eloquence elsewhere in the programme booklet, it would have been good to have had some explication.

A swift reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony concluded proceedings. Page certainly showed courage and conviction in pushing the tempi - which made the determination of some audience members to applaud each movement even more infuriating - and had a clear vision of the structure of the work. As noted above, the ensemble balance was not always ideal - the woodwind and brass ‘out-played’ the strings, and this was exacerbated by the division of the double basses, who might have given a firmer foundation had they not been separated and placed on both sides of the stage. But, Page found the drama when it was needed, and his soloists - all seated on the conductor’s left - did not let him down. Waddington, positioned far right (those seated at the opposite end of the Hall might have felt ‘cut off’ from the ‘action’ when the solo voices entered), was communicative and sure, his ‘O Freunde,’ an appealing invitation. Natalya Romaniv, replacing the indisposed Miah Persson, soared above all with poise, precision and power. Misgivings about the female chorus withstanding, this was a warm, embracing performance - a fitting tribute to music, culture and democracy - the qualities which Classical Opera/The Mozartists embody.

Claire Seymour

Haydn - ‘The Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation, Handel/Mozart - ‘Leidenschaften stillt und weckt Musik’ from Ode to St Cecilia, Mozart - Exsultate, jubilate (first movement), March and Cavatina, ‘Accogli, oh re del mar’ fromIdomeneo, Beethoven - ‘Da stiegen die Menschen’ from Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, Beethoven - Symphony No.9 in D minor

The Choir and Orchestra of The Mozartists: Ian Page (conductor), Barbara Flynn (reader), Natalya Romanic (soprano), Anna Devin (soprano), Stuart Jackson (tenor) Henry Waddington (bass-baritone).

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 9th October 2017.

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