Mozart in Italy Festival

Mozart in Italy Festival
The Mozartists, Ian Page
Cadogan Hall, 6-8 March 2020

The Mozartists (and their companions, Classical Opera) continue with their ambitious MOZART 250 project with a weekend exploration of music written by Mozart and others in the year 1770 when he was 14 years old. The project started in 2015 on the anniversary of Mozart’s childhood visit to London and continues with annual explorations of the music that Mozart wrote exactly 250 years earlier, alongside music that Mozart might have heard during the same year. Following their 2015 ‘Mozart in London’ weekend, this weekend focussed on the time Mozart spent in Italy. The Cadogan Hall weekend included three formal concerts together with related talks and performances. There was a focus on different versions of Mitridate, re di Ponto, by Mozart and others, together with extracts from little-known operas by Guglielmi, Piccinni, Mysliveček and Jommelli that Mozart heard in Verona, Milan, Bologna and Naples.

The Italian trip of Mozart and his father started in December 1769 and lasted for about 15 months. The treacherous journey took them via Innsbruck, the Brenner Pass, Bolzano, Trento and Verono. At most of their stops, the young Mozart was asked to give impromptu concerts and recitals. The first concert (Friday 6 March) was billed as ‘The Audition’ and covered his early compositions in Italy. I was at the following two days, where the concerts were given the titles of ‘The Road to Rome’ and ‘The Commission’. Each included extracts from correspondence between the Mozart family read by Heather Craney.

The Road to Rome concert (Saturday 7.30) featured music by Piccinii, Celoniati, and Mysliveček together with Mozart’s Symphony No 10, now known to have been composed in Rome in April 1770. It demonstrated Mozart’s early ability to create credible musical textures out of the simplest themes, in this case, simple rising and falling scales in the outer movements. Vocal contributions included extracts from Piccinni’s Cesare in Egitto, Celoniati’s Didone abbandonata, and Mysliveček’s La Nitteti, all that heard by Mozart while in Verona, Milan, Bologna and Naples.

Of the two sopranos, Sarah Aristidou impressed me the most, although she appeared a little underpowered in comparison to her much louder companion. Apart from rather overdoing the volume, the latter singer’s overly-operatic voice, uncontrolled vibrato,  vocal swoops between notes and a wide dynamic range, often on the same note were a distraction and a surprising contrast to the otherwise excellent ‘early performance’ style of the weekend. In contrast, Sarah Aristidou demonstrated well-articulated and agile melismas and a nicely focussed voice.

Sarah Aristidou (2).jpgSarah Aristidou

As Ian Page suggested during the pre-concert talk, one problem with the Mozart 250 project is finding music of sufficiently high standard to stand against Mozart’s composition. That was apparent in the two concerts I attended, both of which had music that, despite often being selected as the best of a particular opera, generally lacked the imagination of the youthful Mozart. But kudos to Page for programming these works, most unlikely to ever feature in other concert programmes.

The Sunday afternoon concert was billed as The Commission, reflecting Mozart’s opera Mitridate, re di Ponto, commissioned for performance in Milan. He arrived with his father in October 1770, having composed many of the recitatives en route. Choruses and ensemble pieces were also usually composed before rehearsals started. It was the practice in Mozart’s time to compose the arias last, as they were strongly influenced by input from the chosen singers. Mozart may not have realised this, and arrived with several arias already composed, to the consternation of some of the singers, notably the tenor, who demanded several rewrites. The concert reflected this by including several different versions of arias, as well as the versions by Gasparini, who own Mitridate was clearly and influence on the young Mozart.

Again Sarah Aristidou was a vocal star, an honour she shared with tenor Stuart Jackson, the later excelling with his stable and assured voice and effective use of appropriate ornaments. They both featured in three arias from Jommelli’s Armida abbandonata which we heard Alongside a Mozart letter about Vesuvius smoking and a threat to give his sister ‘a good whipping’. Mozart and his father heard a rehearsal and were impressed. Jackson’s agile and well-articulated runs was matched by a powerful interpretation of the dramatic and turbulent opening section of Fra l’orror di notte oscura.

Alongside the formal concert were talks and a discussion, none of them, unfortunately, the highlight of the weekend. By far the best musical performance came on Sunday afternoon with an impressive performance of Mozart’s rarely heard first String Quartet played by George Clifford, Naomi Burrell, John Rogers and Gavin Kibble. The planned Italian speaker Sergio Durante was Corona-bound in Italy but had thoughtfully sent a transcript of his talk. The stand-in, Cliff Eisen, announced that he was going to ignore this and would improvise his own talk instead, despite admitting that he had never heard the piece played before. His rambling contribution added little to our knowledge of the Quartet, about which he said nothing, and turned into a bizarre game of rearranging the order of the players, which they coped with admirably

The previous day, Eisen had given a similarly awkward talk on Mozart and Italian Sacred Music. The chamber choir of King’s Collge, London performed a much-reduced version of Allegri’s Miserere alongside pieces by Mozart, Martini and de Ligniville, concluding with Mozart’s alternatim setting of the Miserere K85. Their most successful singing came from the main choir in the Allegri, the selected female soloists of the small choir suffering from an alarming level of vibrato which the brought back into the choir for later pieces.

A later discussion between Ian Page and Eisen, hosted by James Jolly could have done with an earlier sound-check, their contributions not being easy to hear. Their topics ranged from the young Mozart’s obvious language skill, hi skill at letter writing and the financial implications of his travels around Europe.

The detailed programme book included essays by Ian Page on the Mozarts’ travels in the 1770s.