Mozart 250: 1768 – a retrospective
The Mozartists, Ian Page, Chiara Skerath
Wigmore Hall. 23 January 2018
Classical Opera’s ambitious ‘Mozart 250’ project is now in its fourth year. The project started in 2014, taking its title from the number of years since Mozart’s childhood visit to London (1764) when he composed his first significant works. The project aims to “follow the chronological trajectory of Mozart’s life, works and influences”, by performing annual concerts and operas based on the music composed 250 years earlier, culminating in 2041, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s death. The Mozartists (the concert-performing wing of Classical Opera) opened the 2018 incarnation of the project with an insight into the music that was composed in 1768, the year that Mozart turned 12. It wasn’t a good year for him. It started with his recovery from smallpox and continued with rejection from the Viennese musical coterie, who prevented the production of Mozart’s first opera, La finta semplice. Classical Opera performed this later this year, as well as his Bastien und Bastienne.
This concert focussed on music in Vienna, opening with Haydn’s unusual Symphony 26, given the title of Passio et Lamentatio by Haydn himself. This seems to have been composed for Holy Week, as it contains extracts from an ancient Gregorian chant setting of the Passion story in the first two movements. The third movement, Menuet e Trio was probably added later to complete the symphony. The turbulent syncopated opening is one of Haydn’s most dramatic. After a sudden quieter moment, in true Sturm und Drang style, the chant melody is heard accompanied by violin figuration. The Adagio is close in style to a Bach organ choral prelude, the chant theme prominent in the middle voice between a walking bass and florid repeated-note violin passages. The horns later add a fauxbourdon version of the chant.
Jommelli’s Fetonte was composed for the new Ludwigsberg theatre in Stuttgart, a theatre designed to accommodate spectacular operatic effects. It is based on Ovid’s account of the calamitous antics of Phaeton, who borrows the chariot of his Dad (the God of the Sun) and wreaks havoc on the earth, turning much of Africa into a desert, before he is struck down by Jupiter’s thunderbolts and falls to his death in the sea. His final aria is Ombre che tacite qui sede, sung (presumably while dead) from an underwater palace as he looks up to the mountain-top abode of the Sun God. The eerie orchestral opening suggests this otherworldly setting. Soprano Chiara Skerath caught the mood perfectly, her voice emerging from the orchestral gloom on a long-held Ombre.
Chiara Skerath completed the first half with two arias from Haydn’s comic opera Lo speziale, based on three competitors for the hand of Grilletta, the guardian of the apothecary of the title, who is also after her hand and dowry. It being the 18th century, all the suiters were male, but Haydn balanced the genders by casting Volpina as a soprano. In Amore nel mio petto Volpina has just been rejected and seeks revenge on his rival. As before, Chiara Skerath immediately got into role and expressed the conflicting emotions of revenge and self-doubt. She followed this with Salamelica, Semprugna cara, where Volpino resorts to pretending to be a Turkish Pasha, with some delightfully inept and clumpy mock-Ottoman music and a text that is mostly made up of Dadl dadl‘s. Chiara Skerath’s ability to portray these two very different pieces was outstanding, her clear, rich and focused tone projecting well into the acoustic. She has a very fast, but relatively slight vibrato which is just on the cusp of being too much, although it doesn’t unduly interfere with her melodic line. Her intonation and enunciation were perfect. Added to this is an impressively friendly and engaging manner with the audience and her fellow musicians.
Between these two solo soprano spots, we heard a contrasting work for flute, with JC Bach’s Flute Concerto in D major. The youngest son of JS Bach, JC spent most of his life in London, hence his usual reference as the ‘London Bach’. In 1768, he and Karl Abel took over complete control over what has become known as the Bach-Abel concerts, founded three years earlier. The autograph manuscript of the D major flute concerto was separated into the three separate movements in the 19th century, which now survive in three different countries. Although there are remaining doubt as to whether three movements actually belong together, on the basis of this performance, they make a coherent whole. JC Bach balances the orchestral writing to balance with the solo flute, which at times is in very low tessitura. The melodic line builds from simple roots to a riot of flourishes and ornamentation. The soloists, Katy Bircher, stepped out from the orchestra to give an attractive and musical performance, notably in her cadenzas and the neat way that she linked the sections in the concluding Rondo.
Chiara Skerath (now in red, as pictured above) continued to be the undoubted star of the evening after the interval with more exquisite singing, firstly of Mozart’s Amoretti, che ascosi qui siete from La finta semplice. This was written during 1768, but not performed until the Mozarts had returned to Salzburg at the end of the year. The vocal highlight of the evening came with the next piece, Hasse Perderò l’amato bene from his penultimate opera Piramo e Tisbe. Hasse was the oldest of the composers represented, being 69 in 1768, but his musical style was completely in line with the current trends. Another story of disastrous love that culminates in everyone killing themselves, as you do in opera, Amoretti, che ascosi qui siete is a beautifully reflective of lost love. Chiara Skerath (incidentally making her UK debut, although she has earlier recorded with Classical Opera) was yet again outstanding, the consistency of her tone over a wide vocal range being very apparent, notably in some beautifully controlled floating high notes. She is a singer to watch out for.
The final piece was musically the weakest, with Vanhal’s Symphony in D minor (d1), a bluster of Sturm und Drang bombast with very little relief. Not the sort of piece that I would have thought would have been appreciated in the homes of his aristocratic patrons in Vienna. The instrumentalists of The Mozartists were on the usual top form, in what must have been a busy and slightly long evening. Ian Page conducted with his characteristic self-effacing sensitivity to the music and musicians, judging pace and mood perfectly.