AAM. New Worlds: Genius – Mozart

New Worlds: Genius – Mozart
Academy of Ancient Music
Laurence Cummings

Ya-Fei Chuang, Robert Levin
Barbican, 1 July 2022

This concert saw the conclusion of the Academy of Ancient Music‘s New Worlds series, and the finale to Laurence Cummings’ first season as the AAM Music Director. Billed as “Grandeur, poetry and pure, unstoppable genius”, this imaginative programme contrasted Mozart’s Jupiter symphony with two little-known Mozart works, the Ballet sequence from Idomeneo (K367), and the Piano Concerto á3 (K242). The programme booklet for the concert can be accessed here.

Idomeneo was Mozart’s tenth opera. It was first performed in Munich in 1781 after an opera-writing gap of six years. During this time, Mozart spent time in Paris where he encountered the music of Gluck and the French operatic tradition of Lully and Rameau, with their extended ballet sequences. For Idonemeo, Mozart was commissioned to provide music for ballet music at the conclusion of the opera. It is not absolutely clear where in the opera the ballet scenes should occur, but it is generally assumed they came at the end of the opera after the expected bloody conclusion is prevented by a rather contrived happy ending. On this occasion we had grand opera for those that do not like opera, with just the Overture and the concluding ballet sequence performed, leaving out all the complicated bits in between.

Although the opera itself reflects many of the French influences, it is in the ballet sequence that the influence of Lully shines through. The sequence opens with an extended French-style Chaconne, quoting Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, its repeated Rondo like phrase interspersed with gentler moments, a central Larghetto, and a concluding segue into a Pas seul de Mad. Falgera, one of several sections marked in the score as dances for named individuals. Shorter dances follow – Passepied, Gavotte and a final rondo-like Passacaille, the latter subdued rather than triumphant, perhaps to help the audience recover from the turmoil of the opera itself

Laurence Cumming’s made several key contributions in this opening piece which were key to his excellent interpretation. The first was the arrangement of the orchestra, with the first and second violins quite correctly divided to the left and right of the conductor, rather than the much later set-up with the second violins hiding behind the first. This is key to Mozart’s musical structure, with many phrases thrown spatially back and forth between the two sets of violins. Another aspect was dividing the two horns and trumpets as wide as possible to the left and right – an arrangement that made perfect musical sense in this piece but was changed for the rest of the programme. Key to Cumming’s interpretation throughout was his attention to the details of phrasing and articulation which, combined with the distinctive tone of the period instruments of the AAM, made for a musically outstanding performance.

The Piano Concerto á 3 (K242) is an unusual piece. Composed for a Salzburg Countess and her two daughters (aged 15 and 12) in 1776 to play. Probably originally intended for three harpsichords, later performances made use of newer keyboard instruments: the fortepiano and the tangent piano, a short-lived hybrid instrument with delicate strips of wood hitting the strings producing a sound that combines elements of the harpsichord and early piano. For this concert, all three instruments were used together in a fascinating contrast of sounds and timbres. The soloists were Ya-Fei Chuang (standing in for an indisposed Richard Egarr), Robert Levin, and Lawrence Cummings (bravely playing the more modest part intended for 12-year-old Josepha) respectively playing pianoforte, tangent piano and harpsichord.

The piece has the feel of the Countess and her daughters having a lively conversation in an elegant saloon. There is no sign of conflict between them – indeed, there is much humour in some sections. Much of the passage-work reflects the daintily patterned clothes that the aristocratic trio might have worn, with delightful little flourishes of musical colour. The delicate and lyrical central Adagio was particularly attractive.

The Jupiter Symphony (No 41) was to be his last symphony. It was composed alongside symphonies 39 and 40 over a 45-day period. It was given an exhilarating performance by Cummings, who brought out the operatic nature of much of the texture, notably in the first movement which seemed to define the various characters of the piece and the different moods that were to come. The Andante cantabile is a graceful sarabande, albeit with some troubling interventions. Whilst the Menuetto lacks the troubling interventions, a chromatic passage adds an air of doubt to the otherwise jovial mood. The final movement is a tour de force of contrapuntal writing, with a series of fugal passages combining the five main themes in various permutations before bringing them all together in a stunning five-part fugal coda. The principal theme is related to the ancient Pange lingua chant, and was also used in Mozart’s first symphony.

This whole programme is being recorded for release later this year. It will be well worth a listen.