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11 Jul 2019

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Mozart’s TravelsThe Mozartists/Ian Page at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Louise Alder

Photo credit: Gerard Collett

 

Conductor and Artistic Director of Classical Opera, Ian Page, suggested in his introductory programme note that the concert programme would give us the opportunity to assess ‘the importance of the composer’s exposure to different cultures, styles and nationalities’. Perhaps that was indeed the case: certainly, Mozart was influenced by an unprecedented array of cosmopolitan cultural influences that undoubtedly made their mark and left an impression on the young musician-composer. But, it seemed to me that, rather than elucidate ‘national’ stylistic footprints in which Mozart may have placed his young toes, what this programme really revealed was how quickly and how strikingly the young Mozart found his own stylistic boots: indeed, Page remarks that the programme illustrates ‘how Mozart’s style and “voice” evolved as he grew and developed’.

Classical Opera Associate Artist Louise Alder Europe-hopped between The Hague, Munich and Prague for the three concert/opera arias that she performed, starting with ‘O temerario Arbace … Per quell paterno amplesso’ K79, which Mozart composed while holed up in The Hague in 1765.

The ‘trick’ that one needs to pull off with Mozart is to make music that is incredibly difficult to sing sound effortless: one requires confidence, a sound technique and musical presence in equal measure, and Alder possesses all three, in abundance. One thing that her three arias demanded of Alder was that she prove able to establish ‘character’ and dramatic/emotional situation in an instant, without prior context, and while she didn’t perhaps entirely convince she made an admirable effort to help us appreciate the honourable self-sacrifice of Arbaces, who has been wrongly imprisoned and sentenced to death for a crime committed by his father Artabanes. The accompanied recitative was notable for the expressive string playing and woodwind colourings, as well as the richness of Alder’s own lower register, as Arbaces begged his father’s forgiveness (don’t ask why!). Alder needed to make some swift adjustments at the start of the aria proper, as the texture is quite thick and the acoustic in the capacity-audience Wigmore Hall was presumably rather different to that experienced during rehearsal. But, she showed both agility and long-breathed lyricism in embodying both son and father and her vocal demeanour was relaxed and eloquent throughout.

Next came some daughter-father ‘issues’ in the form of Ilia’s ‘Se il padre perdei’ form Idomeneo. Here, Alder’s vocal sheen evinced a lovely sincerity and the da capo form was used dramatically to reinforce the emotions and commitments of Ilia to her new, adopted land. The contribution of the woodwind and horns was a noteworthy strength of the expressive idiom: there was some lovely flute, bassoon and horn playing, complementing and interacting with the voice.

Alder’s final contribution to the programme was the concert aria ‘Bella mia fiamma … Resta, o cara’, which Mozart wrote for the soprano Josepha Duschek - whose relationship with Mozart is reputed to have been rather risqué. The story goes that Duschek demanded that Mozart compose an aria for her before he left Prague (following the acclaimed presentation of Don Giovanni in the city), his riposte being that he would do so as long as she could sing the said aria accurately at first sight. Well, the chromatic passages in ‘Resta, o cara’ are both startling and musically powerful, and Alder nailed every nuanced twist and turn head on, while never neglecting expressive lyricism.

The solo contributions in the remainder of this Mozartists’ programme were no less impressive. Flautist Katy Bircher and harpist Oliver Wass reminded us that there is rather more to Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp than its Classic FM stature might suggest, Bircher’s pure lyricism being complemented by Wass’s rather more mercurial spontaneity; Wass performed from memory and his hands fluttered with energetic creativity and bite. The Mozartists were lean and light throughout, though at times the tempo flagged and needed to be ‘picked up’ in the opening Allegro. The beauty of the Andantino spoke for itself, though, again, Wass was prone to spice up the purity with seductive ripples and expressive rubatos - to this listener’s delight.

Gavin Edwards’ performance of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.4 made light work of the technical challenges - surely this music isn’t supposed to sound so ‘easy’, despite Mozart’s helpful writing for the natural horn? Edwards manipulated colour, timbre, dynamics, all the while playing with spot-on intonation - and absolutely no ‘fuss’. The cadenza of the first movement ( Allegro maestoso) had moments of beautiful lyricism, and harmonic nuances were subtly emphasised. Edwards showed that he could both reach to the far reaches of the instrument’s range, and ornament with style. Tempi were not always entirely settled - the second movement Romance seemed to change gear several times - but the final Rondo: Allegro vivace was deliciously light and joyful, romping home with vivacity.

Framing the programme were two early Mozart symphonies: the first and the tenth. In the former one could hear the 7-year-old Mozart exploring dynamic contrasts and securing his harmonic progressions. There were some hyperbolic flourishes - childish “Look at me!”s - but one could indulge such outbursts. Page whipped through the score lightly (though at times the horns were rather exposed - at the start of the performance, they presumably hadn’t had time to find their ‘groove’), and the same swiftness characterised the Symphony No.10 in G major, in which the Andante followed segue from the rhetoric-heavy opening Allegro - all punchy horns and racing strings - and the concluding Allegro made a virtue of brevity.

I doubt I shall hear these two symphonies in the same programme - if at all - ever again. As always, Page and The Mozartists introduced us to some musical byways that we will be glad to have travelled.

Claire Seymour

The Mozartists, Ian Page (conductor), Louise Alder (soprano), Katy Bircher (flute), Oliver Wass (harp), Gavin Edwards (horn)

Mozart: Symphony No.1 in E flat K16, ‘O temerario Arbace … Per quel paterno amplesso’ K79, Concerto in C for flute and harp K299, ‘Se il padre perdei’ from Idomeneo K366, Horn Concerto No.4 in E flat K495, ‘Bella mia fiamma … Resta, o cara’ K528, Symphony No.10 in G K74

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8th July 2019.

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