02 October 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | October 2017: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE, K. 126 (S. Jackson, K. Ek, S. Mafi, K. Adam, R. Murray, C. Skerath; Classical Opera; Signum Classics SIGCD499)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | October 2017: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE, K. 126 (Signum Classics SIGCD499)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Il sogno di Scipione, K. 126Stuart Jackson (Scipione), Klara Ek (Costanza), Soraya Mafi (Fortuna), Krystian Adam (Publio), Robert Murray (Emilio), Chiara Skerath (Licenza); The Choir and Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded in the Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK, 16 – 19 October 2016; Signum Classics SIGCD499; 2 CDs, 108:14; Available from Classical Opera, Signum Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

What a music lovers’ paradise the Alpine oasis of Salzburg must have seemed in 1771. Beneath its imposing Eleventh-Century hilltop Schloss, Salzburg had grown from its Roman roots as an important center of salt mining to the archiepiscopal seat of some of Europe’s most well-connected prelates, the rulers of the independent Prince-Archbishopric of Salzburg. Exercising both clerical and secular authority from the Middle Ages until the first decade of the Nineteenth Century, Salzburg’s Prince-Archbishops cultivated a cosmopolitan court that by the middle of the Eighteenth Century was housed in a town that boasted of Baroque opulence uncommon north of the Dolomites. It was for the Salzburg court that the violinist, pedagogue, and composer Leopold Mozart left his native Augsburg, another of the Holy Roman Empire’s self-sufficient Prince-Archbishoprics, in 1743. Thirteen years later, on 27 January 1756, Mozart and his wife welcomed their final child, a son christened as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus, whom the proud father later famously deemed ‘the miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.’

By December 1771, Salzburg was distinguished by a flourishing musical society that, in addition to the fifteen-year-old Mozart, his father, and his twenty-year-old sister, included Johann Michael Haydn, younger—and artistically worthy—brother of the famous Franz Joseph Haydn. Published in the year of Wolfgang’s birth, the elder Mozart’s tome on violin technique, still an invaluable source of information for scholars of historically-accurate performance practices, had advanced acknowledgement of Leopold’s standing as a master of the instrument throughout Europe. It was in this setting that the adolescent Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione sprang to life. Planned as an homage to the reign of Prince-Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach, an enlightened patron friendly to the Mozarts, performance of the azione teatrale was hindered by the Prince-Archbishop’s untimely death. As history recounts, the younger Mozart’s professional relationship with von Schrattenbach’s successor to the archiepiscopal throne, Hieronymus von Colloredo, was anything but cordial, but it began with a celebratory performance of a brief excerpt from Il sogno di Scipione that concluded with an adaptation of Licenza’s aria specially revised to flatter the new Prince-Archbishop—an auspicious inauguration of what proved to be a contentious association.

Ultimately, Il sogno di Scipione is not known to have been performed in the form in which Mozart originally set Pietro Metastasio’s libretto until 1979, in which year it was staged in the city for which it was written with a cast who also recorded the score in studio. Featuring an ensemble of renowned Mozarteans including Peter Schreier, Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberová, and Edith Mathis under the direction of Leopold Hager, Scipione’s first recorded outing remains an enjoyable performance that plausibly conjures the musical environment of Eighteenth-Century Salzburg. This new recording from Signum Classics, masterfully produced and engineered by Andrew Mellor, writes an engaging new chapter in Il sogno di Scipione’s history with a cast of singers competitive with the finest Mozarteans of previous generations and music making of timeless excellence.

There are a number of clever names among today’s musical ensembles, many of which are largely meaningless. ‘What’s in a name?’ Shakespeare’s Juliet opines, both articulating a fateful query with implications that she and her Romeo are never able to wholly transcend and succinctly expressing one of humanity’s gnawing conundrums: is the value of a thing meaningfully affected by the name by which it is identified? A ‘royal philharmonic’ might be addressed as such without being regal in bearing or patronage or truly being a friend of music, but there could be no more aptly descriptive or well-deserved name for the ensemble that provides the musical foundation for this recording of Il sogno di Scipione than Classical Opera. In this score, Mozart’s compositional style remains a work in progress, the orchestral and vocal writing reminiscent more of the operas of late-career Hasse and Mysliveček than of Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte. Already a shrewd musical innovator at the age of fifteen, Mozart nevertheless wrote music that highlights the limited philosophical and psychological nuances of Metastasio’s words, old-fashioned even in 1771. [Mozart would return to a Metastasio libretto two decades later in La clemenza di Tito, one of his most emotionally profound works for the stage.]

Classical Opera’s founder and Artistic Director Ian Page again proves as skilled and sagacious an interpreter of Mozart’s music as the first seventeen years of the Twenty-First Century have seen—as Leopold Mozart might have surmised, a musical talent gifted by providence to the new millennium. Page’s leadership of this recording exhibits the crucial understanding that Il sogno di Scipione is neither a conventional Classical opera seria like Mysliveček’s Il gran Tamerlano, a direct contemporary of Scipione, nor a seminal work of the significance of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Il sogno di Scipione is an important step in Mozart’s development as a composer of secular vocal music and an enjoyable, often sophisticated work in its own right, however, and Page’s management of this performance of the score allows the listener to hear the music as Mozart would have expected it to sound. Serious artist though he was from an astonishingly young age, irreverence was a vital aspect of Mozart’s character, and not even his most solemn music lacks joy. Page’s conducting, the choristers’ vibrant singing of ‘Germe di cento eroi’ and ‘Cento volte con lieto sembiante,’ and the orchestra’s flawlessly-articulated playing exude not only the humor that Mozart wove into the score but an unmistakable elation at the opportunity to recreate this invigorating work. Whether their instruments are voices, violins, or batons, too many artists seemingly fail to appreciate that performing on stage or in studio is a privilege. Page and Classical Opera do not take for granted that Il sogno di Scipione is a piece that modern listeners want to hear: rather, they offer today’s listeners a performance of Il sogno di Scipione that must be heard, both by lovers of Mozart’s music and by those who simply enjoy splendid performances of good music.

The top calibre of the vocal talent assembled for this recorded performance of Il sogno di Scipione is apparent in every bar of secco recitative, enlivened in this performance by the continuo playing of harpsichordist Christopher Bucknall, cellist Luise Buchberger, and double bassist Cecelia Bruggemeyer. Traversing Mozart’s musical paths under the guidance of Page and the continuo, the singers make the recitatives genuine conversations among the work’s historical and allegorical characters. To both the revision of Licenza’s aria ‘Ah, perchè cercar degg’io’ that was likely performed in celebration of the 1772 coronation of Prince-Archbishop von Colloredo and the original, more elaborate version of the aria soprano Chiara Skerath brings technical accomplishment worthy of the music and ably-projected, appealing tone. Her account of the aria and its introductory recitative constitutes a true narrative. Similarly, tenors Robert Murray and Krystian Adam sing superbly as Emilio and Publio. Murray delivers Emilio’s aria ‘Voi colaggiù ridete’ with virtuosity and vigor, the stylistic panache and attractiveness of his vocalism recalling the Mozart singing of Léopold Simoneau. Adam’s performances of Publio’s demanding arias ‘Se vuoi che te raccolgano’ and ‘Quercia annosa su l’erte pendici’ impress with technical finesse and tonal focus that is unimpeded by Mozart’s divisions.

As the dueling Fortuna and Costanza, sopranos Soraya Mafi and Klara Ek meet the challenges of their music with assurance and persuasiveness: weighing the merits of their competing cases would be a Herculean task for even the most savvy Scipione! Mafi delivers Fortuna’s aria ‘Lieve sono al par del vento’ with ideal vocal amplitude, conveying both the literal and figurative meanings of the text. The deftness of her bravura singing lends Fortuna credibility as the bringer of earthly pleasures, her vocalism always a pleasure to hear. Mafi’s interpretation of ‘A chi serena io miro’ is no less intelligent, and her silvery, dexterous vocalism is still finer. Ek offers a sparkling reading of Costanza’s ‘Ciglio che al sol si gira’ in which ornamentation—the composer’s and the soprano’s—serves a clearly-defined dramatic purpose. Like Mafi, Ek is even more effective in her character’s second aria. The unaffected brilliance of her singing of ‘Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio’ imparts the absolute sincerity of Costanza’s mission, depicted by Mozart with purity of form that is perceptible in Ek’s performance. Both singers occasionally venture higher in cadenzas than is wholly comfortable, but these risks are products of the ladies’ immersion in the arguments they are charged with presenting. Their voices are sufficiently contrasted to enable immediate identification, and two instruments could hardly have been better matched for these rôles, in the casting of which Mozart would surely have wanted equals like Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni or Giulia Grisi and Giuditta Pasta. History does not permit certainty about the identities of the singers by whom Mozart may have intended Fortuna and Costanza to have been sung, but he could not have failed to have been pleased by Mafi and Ek.

Tenor Stuart Jackson was the excellent Soliman in Classical Opera’s standard-setting recording of Mozart’s Zaide, and he is here a fantastic interpreter of the title rôle in Il sogno di Scipione. Such are the difficulties of the consul’s music that his dream can easily become a nightmare for listeners, but Jackson sings so ably, adroitly, and affably that this Sogno is a consistent delight. In Scipione’s first aria, ‘Risolver non osa,’ Jackson makes the character’s indecision and ambivalence palpable, his unflinching negotiation of the fiorature suggesting the rapid-fire interplay of ideas in Scipione’s mind. Then, he delivers ‘Dì’ che sei l’arbitra del mondo intero’ with an apparent sense of a responsible ruler’s integrity. Complementing his soft-grained timbre with a lightness of touch that lends his portrayal of Scipione a vein of tenderness and vulnerability, the tenor sings sweetly even when taxed by Mozart’s vocal gymnastics. In his intrepid ascents into the vocal stratosphere at and beyond top C, Jackson perpetuates the tradition of haute-contre singing prevalent in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, producing the highest notes with a handsomely-wielded voix mixte. In its wonderful way, Jackson’s Scipione is as memorable as Ernst Haefliger’s Belmonte, Stuart Burrows’s Don Ottavio, and Fritz Wunderlich’s Tamino; in other words, Mozart singing of the highest quality.

Not every note committed to parchment by Mozart bears the unmistakable mark of genius, but his least-inspired music possesses a level of craftsmanship superior to that of the efforts of all but the most talented of his contemporaries. What, in part, makes Ian Page’s and Classical Opera’s performances and recordings of Mozart’s pre-Idomeneo theatrical works invaluable is the avoidance of well-meaning but ill-advised endeavors to inflate the music’s importance. Left to its own devices, genius reveals itself without meddlesome provocation, and this is a performance of Il sogno di Scipione in which the budding genius of the score’s adolescent composer is all the more evident for being celebrated without exaggeration. The equilibrium that was so prized an aspect of Classicism, both in antiquity and in Eighteenth-Century music, but is so often missing in today’s opera performances is the hallmark of this Sogno di Scipione and of Classical Opera’s work in general. That, dear Juliet, is what’s in this name.