23 December 2018

CD REVIEW: Boyhood’s End — The Mozartists and Ian Page explore Mozart’s formative years with MOZART IN LONDON (R. Bottone, E. Dennis, A. Devin, M. Grimson, A. M. Labin, H. Sherman, B. Johnson, R. Murray; Signum Classics SIGCD534) and GRABMUSIK / BASTIEN UND BASTIENNE (A. L. Richter, J. Imbrailo, A. Fisher, D. Jeffery; Signum Classics SIGCD547)

In Review: MOZART IN LONDON (Signum Classics SIGCD534) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's GRABMUSIK / BASTIEN UND BASTIENNE (Signum Classics SIGCD547)[1] KARL FRIEDRICH ABEL (1723 – 1787), THOMAS AUGUSTINE ARNE (1710 – 1778), SAMUEL ARNOLD (1740 – 1802), JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH (1735 – 1782), WILLIAM BATES (died 1778), EGIDIO DUNI (1708 – 1775), WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), DAVIDE PEREZ (1711 – 1778), GIOVANNI BATTISTA PESCETTI (circa 1704 – 1766), and GEORGE RUSH (circa 1730 – circa 1780): Mozart in LondonRebecca Bottone, Eleanor Dennis, Anna Devin, Martene Grimson, Ana Maria Labin (sopranos); Helen Sherman (mezzo-soprano); Ben Johnson, Robert Murray (tenors); Steven Devine (harpsichord); The Mozartists; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded during live performances at Milton Court, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, UK, 20 – 22 February 2015; Signum Classics SIGCD534; 2 CDs, 144:50; Available from Signum Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: Grabmusik, K. 42/35a (original 1767 version) and Bastien und Bastienne, K. 50 (original 1768 version)Anna Lucia Richter (Der Engel, Bastienne), Jacques Imbrailo (Die Seele), Alessandro Fisher (Bastien), Darren Jeffery (Colas); The Mozartists; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at Blackheath Concert Halls, Blackheath, London, UK, 7 – 9 January 2018; Signum Classics SIGCD547; 1 CD, 66:24; Available from Signum Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Unlike most of the Twenty-First Century’s population centers, London was by the turn of the Nineteenth Century a teeming metropolis. It is estimated that, by the time of the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, London’s streets were congested by the traffic of 100,000 residents, and nearly 1.1 million Londoners were counted when the first modern census was conducted in 1801. Eight hundred miles away, there were likely 15,000 inhabitants of the Austrian city of Salzburg, then an independent archiepiscopal seat, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born there on 27 January 1756. Neither a small town as suggested by the fictional incarnation of Antonio Salieri who appears in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus nor the cultural Hinterland depicted in early biographies of Mozart, Salzburg was nevertheless dwarfed by London, which the composer’s youthful eyes first beheld on 23 April 1764, when he arrived from the Continent with his father and sister, poised to beguile the music-loving denizens of Georgian society.

It is hardly surprising that London should have exerted a strong effect upon the young Salzburger, his native city’s hilltop Schloss so different from the English capital’s elegant palaces. For the modern traveler visiting London for the first time, the enormity of the place can be daunting, but it is difficult to fathom how a boy with only eight years to his credit must have reacted to the city’s splendors. With the cataclysmic fire of 1666 less than a century in past at the time of the Mozarts’ arrival, many of Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpieces were then still new by London standards. Still recent, too, was the absence from the London musical scene of Georg Friedrich Händel, who died on 14 April 1759. History has extolled Paris and Vienna as the centers of musical innovation in the Eighteenth Century, but the musical legacy of Georgian Britain rivals that of the period’s much-lauded literature.

That Leopold Mozart elected to remain in Britain for fifteen months, departing on the homeward journey on 24 July 1765, demonstrates that the discerning father valued the educational benefit of Wolfgang’s and his sister Nannerl’s extended exposure to England’s music and musicians. Subsequent generations have judged Vater Mozart harshly, deeming him to have been an unapologetic opportunist whose concern for his children’s well-being was outweighed by his cognizance of their earnings potential, but the nurturing of their natural talents that their work ultimately revealed at least provisionally rehabilitates Leopold’s parental reputation.

Unfortunately, none of Nannerl’s compositions are known to have survived, but her younger brother’s works on The Mozartists’ and Ian Page’s Signum Classics release Mozart in London, as well as his 1767 Grabmusik (K. 42/35a) and 1768 Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne (K. 50), the featured pieces on a subsequent Mozartists recording, vindicate the wisdom of Leopold’s judgment. In his correspondence, Mozart often discussed the influence of fellow composers whose music he admired, but the misconception that the creator of Così fan tuttle and Die Zauberflöte was the product solely of his own genius regrettably persists. Exploring music likely to have captivated his inquisitive young ears in 1764 and 1765, Mozart in London melodiously provides Mozart’s musical growth with historically-appropriate context.

Had encounters with The Mozartists and Ian Page transpired during the Mozarts’ 457 days in England, the family might well have remained in London indefinitely. A lingering problem in performances of music dating from the first two decades of Mozart’s life is the tendency to approach the music from the perspective of the works of his final fifteen years, unnecessarily and in many cases detrimentally imposing an inflated grandiosity on the music. No one now questions the legitimacy of Mozart’s genius: performing the works of his youth as though were written with the same inventiveness that shaped later pieces enlarges the distance between Mozart and the listener. This is a mistake never made by The Mozartists, whose goal to recreate the sound world in which Mozart was immersed in London in the 1760s is achieved with that most vital of historically-informed virtues—common sense.

In terms of aural balances, clarity, and avoidance of distracting noises off, these discs, recorded during concerts in London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, offer the listener an ideal sonic environment in which to appraise the novelties of this music. This is of course inconsequential if the quality of the performances is inferior to that of the recorded sound. Page ensures that the musicianship on Mozart in London is pristine, conducting with his customary stylistic flexibility and unflagging concentration. The musical dialects spoken by these pieces range from late Baroque to fledgling Romantic, and Page communicates effectively in each of them. The Mozartists play with indefatigable elegance that never stands in the way of evincing the music’s inherent passions. The instrumentalists play with an incontestable sense of responsibility for the successes of both Mozart in London and their performances of Grabmusik and Bastien und Bastienne. Their endeavors engender discs for which any musician would be proud to claim responsibility.

The composer’s shade hopefully will not be too incensed by the assertion that the selections from Mozart’s own early compositions are the least-interesting pieces included on Mozart in London, though only because they are not new to recordings. Performances of these works are not even a fraction as frequent as are those of his later music, but they are far from unknown. Rarely are they played as idiomatically as in these performances, however. Composed in Chelsea during August or September 1764, whilst his father convalesced from a minor malady, the Symphony No. 1 in E♭ major (K. 16) is a piece with ebullience that is little encumbered by musical reflections of characteristic English clouds and fogs. Page insightfully manages the tempo transitions among the Molto allegro, Andante, and Presto movements, his pacing brisk but by no means rushed.

The Allegro, Andante, and Presto chapters in the narrative of Symphony No. 4 in D major (K. 19) also receive nuanced but persuasively straightforward readings. The composer’s manuscript misplaced and feared lost for two centuries, the Symphony in F major (K. 19a) was Mozart’s inaugural venture in symphonic form, and it is here played with an apt air of discovery. Page and The Mozartists energetically limn the youthful zest of the Allegro assai and Presto movements, and the delicacy with which they articulate the melodic lines of the Andante exhibits what an ear for beauty that Mozart already possessed at the age of eight.

A setting of words from Pietro Metastasio’s much-used libretto Ezio, ‘Va, dal furor portata’ (K. 21) was Mozart’s first concert aria and was likely never performed during the composer’s lifetime. The performance by tenor Ben Johnson on Mozart in London is enjoyable despite fleeting insecurity in passagework. From the inception of his composition of vocal music, Mozart wielded a rare affinity for identifying the innate musicality of words, whether in German, Italian, or Latin. Johnson’s clear diction enables the listener to fully appreciate the cleverness of Mozart’s reaction to Metastasio’s text, and his burnished but light-textured voice perfectly suits the music.

Karl Friedrich Abel was among the German-speaking composers who followed the Hannoverian dynasty to London, led by Händel’s example. Rediscovery of his music has disclosed that he was a pioneering symphonist who deserves to be recognized in the company of the innovative Haydn brothers. In this performance by Page and The Mozartists, Abel’s Symphony in E♭ major (Op. 7, No. 6) is proved to be worthy of inclusion not just in this programme but also in the standard orchestral repertoire. The vivacity of the opening Allegro movement crackles in the strings, and the genteel part writing with which the composer wove the Andante is delivered with focus on the music’s aural tapestry. As in the concluding movements of Mozart’s symphonies, Page sets a tempo for Abel’s Presto that is utterly right for the music.

IN REVIEW: a view of London’s Grosvenor Square, circa 1750; engraving by T. Bowles [Image © by Mayson Beaton Collection]Square deal: a view of London’s Grosvenor Square, circa 1750, in an engraving by T. Bowles
[Image © by Mayson Beaton Collection]

Now principally remembered for the rousing ‘Rule, Britannia’ from his Masque of Alfred, Thomas Arne was one of Eighteenth-Century Britain’s most gifted native sons. A master of many of the musical forms in vogue during his career, he garnered considerable praise with his penchant for writing stirring works for the stage with texts in English—an aspect of his artistry that, surveyed by an ensemble of expert musicians, enlivens this visit to London as Mozart knew it. Sampling Arne’s oratorio Judith, soprano Ana Maria Labin sings a pair of arias that confirm their composer’s work to have merited Mozart’s admiration. First, she phrases the enchanting ‘Sleep, gentle Cherub! Sleep descend,’ a piece that would not sound out of place in Händel’s Orlando, with superb breath control, heightening the emotional impact of the words and the auditory luster of her evenly-produced tones. The wrenching ‘O torment great, too great to bear’ renders Arne’s Israelite woman a cousin of Händel’s Theodora, and Labin reanimates this finely-crafted music with stylish but ingratiatingly full-bodied vocalism.

During his time in England, Mozart studied singing under the tutelage of the noted castrato Giusto Fernando Tenducci, who created the rôle of Arbaces in Artaxerxes, the only one of Arne’s operas to have seized a foothold in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, aided in no small part by the initiative of Classical Opera, Ian Page, and Signum Classics. For Mozart in London, mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman stands in for Tenducci as Arbaces, singing two of the character’s arias with technical assurance and emotional honesty that teach the listener about what Mozart likely learned in London two-and-a-half centuries ago. Sherman’s account of ‘Amid a thousand racking woes’ exhilarates, the singer’s command of the requisite musical idiom allied with perceptive use of the words. No less rousing is her singing of the very different but equally engrossing ‘O too lovely, too unkind.’ In both arias, her voice gleams. Composers and fellow singers could learn much from Sherman’s singing of this music.

As performed by soprano Rebecca Bottone and tenor Robert Murray, the most delightful of Arne’s pieces on Mozart in London is the duet ‘O Dolly, I part’ from The Guardian Outwitted. As they disclose in their individual assignments, they are exemplary exponents of this repertoire: combining their voices and their histrionic skills, they bring Dolly and her swain to life and make the centuries that divide today’s listeners from them disappear. Bottone’s upper register strikes like lightning, electrifying her exchange with Murray. She goes on to sing ‘Hist, hist! I hear my mother call,’ one of the numbers that Samuel Arnold composed himself for his pastiche The Maid of the Mill, with disarming simplicity. Arnold also included a number from Italian composer Egidio ​Duni​’s 1758 opera La fille mal gardée in The Maid of the Mill, given in English as ​​‘To speak my mind of womankind,’ and Murray’s brilliantly mercurial singing accentuates the music’s tremendous charm. Displaying the well-honed versatility of her own artistry, Bottone tenders a mellifluous tribute to the craftsmanship of the forgotten William Bates with an evocatively unaffected performance of ‘In this I fear my latest breath’ from Pharnaces.

The names of Giovanni Battista Pescetti and George Rush are now little more than footnotes in the chronicles of music in the Eighteenth Century, but their work was sufficiently regarded in the 1760s for it to be likely that Mozart heard some of their music during his time in Britain. Voicing ‘Caro mio bene, addio,’ an aria by Pescetti included by the production’s primo uomo in a pastiche version of Metastasio’s Ezio staged at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in November 1764, with appealing tone and earnest feeling, soprano Martene Grimson stimulates curiosity about what other gems are hidden among this composer’s scores. The success of the 1764 Drury Lane première of George Rush’s The Capricious Lovers did not prevent its librettist, Robert Lloyd, from ending his own life less than a month after the opera’s opening, but the three-part Overture, an example of the type of operatic Sinfonia that evolved into the Classical symphony that receives from The Mozartists a reading of aptly-scaled buoyancy, understandably enjoyed popularity as a concert piece that outlived the titular lovers’ presence on the stage. Had artists active in the years that separate Rush’s lifetime from the Twenty-First Century sung ‘Thus laugh’d at, jilted and betray’d’ as Robert Murray sings it on Mozart in London, The Capricious Lovers might never have ceded its grasp on the public’s attention.

Born in Naples but most known for his tenure at the Lisbon court of José I, Davide Perez brought Metastasio’s libretti to the Portuguese capital. Metastasio’s protégé Giovanni Ambrogio Migliavacca was the author of the libretto of Perez’s Solimano, a text that, like many of Metastasio’s libretti, was utilized by a number of composers, including Pescetti, following its initial use by Johann Adolf Hasse in 1753. Perez’s adaptation of the text was first staged in Lisbon in 1758. It was for a patchwork presentation of Solimano that Perez’s aria ‘Se non ti moro a lato’ was pressed into service in London in 1765, but the text of this aria was derived from Metastasio’s Adriano in Siria rather than Solimano. Sir Walter Scott might have perceived in this muddle a proverbial ‘tangled weave,’ but Martene Grimson unravels the enticement of Perez’s music with an eloquent, touching traversal of the aria.

Among the composers with whose work Mozart became acquainted whilst visiting London, none made a stronger or longer-lasting impression than Johann Christian Bach. Often called the London Bach, this youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach enjoyed royal patronage and popularity with the public during his time in England. During his family’s travels and his time in Vienna, Mozart either met many of the age’s foremost composers or knew their music, and the significance of his profound respect for Johann Christian Bach’s music is indicative of the caliber of his work. The Mozartists’ keyboardist Steven Devine finds much to stimulate but nothing to overextend his abilities in Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D major (Op. 1, No. 6). He dispatches Bach’s spirited writing in the outer Allegro assai and Allegro moderato movements with abundant virtuosity, but it is his playing of the central Andante that dazzles, the nobility of his phrasing reminding the listener of the expressivity of which the harpsichord is capable when handled by a true master of its sounds.

Unlike his father, the London Bach was a successful composer of music for the stage, and it is likely that the young Mozart knew a number of his older colleague’s operatic scores. Though recent years have witnessed increased interest in the stile galante typified by Bach’s music, his extant operas have received comparatively little attention. The three works sampled on Mozart in London intimate that, like Händel’s and Mozart’s, Bach’s mastery of the art of using music to convey emotion was superior to that of many of his contemporaries. The lyricism of ‘Non so d’onde viene,’ an aria from Bach’s Alessandro nell’Indie that was sung in the London pastiche Ezio, finds a natural exponent in Ben Johnson, the lovely patina of the tenor’s voice accentuating the gracefulness of the music.

Performed in London in a 1765 pastiche based upon the same libretto by Antonio Salvi set by Händel in 1737 as Berenice, regina d’Egitto, the aria ‘Confusa, smarrita’ was extracted from Bach’s Catone in Utica. Soprano Anna Devin intrepidly conquers the aria’s formidable tessitura whilst also projecting the sentiments of the text. The famously critical Charles Burney recorded that the 1765 première of Bach’s Adriano in Siria was at least partially a failure despite the presence of a beyond-capacity audience. Emirena’s accompagnato ‘Ah, come mi balza il cor’ and aria ‘Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso’ in Adriano in Siria were written for the same singer who portrayed the title rôle in Berenice, the Torino-born soprano Teresa Scotti. Scotti perhaps did not meet Burney’s expectations, but, singing the scene magnificently on Mozart in London, Devin exceeds the high standard set by Margaret Marshall in a 1988 Vienna concert performance of Adriano in Siria conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. The rôle of Farnaspe was sung in Adriano’s first performance by castrato Giovanni Manzuoli, who would collaborate with Mozart in creating the name part in Ascanio in Alba in Milan in 1771. For this recording, Farnaspe’s aria ‘Cara, la dolce fiamma’ is interpreted by soprano Eleanor Dennis, and hers is some of the finest singing heard on Mozart in London, her comfort with Bach’s style facilitating a fantastic performance of this ​meticulously-crafted music.

Mozart in London is unquestionably an educational release, but it melds its pedagogy with extraordinary musicality. Visiting London in 1764 and 1765 must have been much the same for Mozart. There was something to be learned at virtually every turn, but how much easier lessons are when they are tunefully taught!

IN REVIEW: the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as painted by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni, circa 1763 [Image © by Mozarteaum Foundation]Wunderkind about town: portrait of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (1721 – 1782), circa 1763
[Image © by Mozarteum Foundation]

Having absorbed the lessons of London and other destinations along his family’s musical tour, Mozart returned to his native city with increased awareness of both his own abilities and the stylistic developments promulgated by his contemporaries. In 1767, the eleven-year-old Mozart was challenged by the penultimate Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Sigismund von Schrattenbach, to rapidly produce a score that silenced skepticism about the preternatural cleverness attributed to the boy. It is surmised that Mozart composed his Grabmusik (K. 42/35a), a Passion-themed cantata that likely received its first performance at Salzburger Dom during 1767’s Holy Week, in response to his patron’s test. Little is known of the work’s reception, but it is not difficult to suppose that Graf von Schrattenbach, who was considerably more cordial to Mozart than his archiepiscopal successor, Hieronymus von Colloredo, would prove to be, was pleased by the result of his young subject’s toil.

Illustrative of a Teutonic liturgical tradition that predated Mozart by several centuries, Grabmusik’s dialogue of a soul and an angel before the tomb of Christ, sung in this performance by baritone Jacques Imbrailo and soprano Anna Lucia Richter, is a direct descendent of the sort of philosophical discourse found in Händel’s Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, a mode of theological explication that in other parts of Europe was already outdated in 1767—and one to which Mozart did not return in the remaining twenty-four years of his life. Belying the age of its composer, the maturity of the musical language reflects the depth of Mozart’s remarkably erudite understanding of the discourse.

From the first notes of Die Seele’s recitative ‘Wo bin ich? bittrer Schmerz,’ Imbrailo delivers the soul’s utterances with secure, sonorous tones. Guided by Page’s tempi, pensive but never ponderous, the baritone lends his voicing of the aria ‘Felsen, spaltet eurer Rachen’ an aura of wonderment. Richter answers with declamations of Der Engel’s ‘Geliebte Seel’, was redest du?’ and ‘Betracht dies Herz und frage mich’ that spotlight Mozart’s youthful but surprisingly advanced sensitivity to layers of meaning in the text. The spontaneity of Imbrailo’s pronouncement of ‘O Himmel! was ein traurig Licht’ heightens the sense of fulfilled faith that permeates the music. The concluding duet, ‘Jesu, was hab’ ich getan,’ is an obvious step along the path that leads from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Ending a heartfelt performance of the duet by both soprano and baritone, Richter’s statement of the Angel’s announcement of absolution, ‘Es verzeihet deinem Schmerz,’ is a genuinely cathartic resolution, musically and emotionally.

In the year after his Grabmusik was composed, Mozart continued the experimentation with composing for the operatic stage begun with Apollo et Hyacinthus with a small-scaled work for voices intended to parody Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1752 intermède Le devin du village, one of the most successful operatic pieces of its decade. One of Mozart’s earliest biographers, his widow’s second husband, speculated but could not substantiate that Bastien und Bastienne (K. 50/46b) was first performed by forces funded by the renowned German doctor Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer at his palatial residence in Vienna and may also have been commissioned by him. [Regardless of the discord that it inspired, later lampooned by Mozart in Così fan tutte, Mesmer’s concept of animal magnetism was clearly a profitable postulation.] Corroborating assertions concerning events conjectured to have transpired a quarter-millennium ago is difficult under the best of circumstances, but reconstructing the chronology of Bastien’s genesis was aided by the Twentieth-Century rediscovery of the autograph score, which affirmed details of the work’s initial composition and later revision. However Mesmer was involved with its creation, The Mozartists​ definitively show Bastien und Bastienne to be an endearingly hypnotic example of the young Mozart​’s ingenuity.

Though uniformly well-intentioned and thoroughly musical, previous recorded performances have tended to treat Bastien und Bastienne as a museum piece rather than a viable work for the stage. After all, how theatrically savvy could a twelve-year-old boy possibly have been? As in all of his Mozart recordings to date, Page focuses solely on performing the music as the score dictates and leaves answering questions about the piece’s dramatic effectiveness to the listener. The first performance of Bastien und Bastienne that can be conclusively verified took place in Berlin in 1890, but so revelatory is The Mozartists’ animated account of the score that it might be the world-première performance.

The sincerity exuded by Anna Lucia Richter’s singing as Der Engel in Grabmusik gives her portrayal of Bastienne a palpable charisma, evident in every note of her performance but particularly in ‘Er war mir sonst treu und ergeben.’ Tenor Alessandro Fisher’s ardent, euphoniously-sung Bastien is a worthy partner, the character’s fickleness notwithstanding. Fisher wholly avoids the temptation to approach Bastien as a Tamino in training, instead singing the rôle on its own terms. His voicing of ‘Meiner Liebsten schöne Wangen’ is a perfect expression of hormonally-charged young love, and he joins with Richter in a feisty ‘Geh! geh! geh, Herz von Flandem!’ that in their performance is precisely the kind of lovers’ quarrel and reconciliation that would now be conducted via text message. Colas, the mediating force in Bastien und Bastienne, is brought to life with astute theatrical instincts and resonant vocalism by bass-baritone Darren Jeffery. Incisive in speech and song, the latter supplemented by the inclusion of Mozart’s 1769 revision of Colas’s second aria, Jeffery finds in Colas an older brother of Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail with his own unique musical personality. His work exemplifies the prevailing virtue of The Mozartists’ performance of Bastien und Bastienne: the makings of Mozart’s eventual operatic flair are always audible, but this Bastien und Bastienne is a fully-formed organism, not a glorified embryo.

Paradoxically, it is easy to undermine estimation of Mozart’s enduring significance to Western music by overstating the scope of his originality. The cinematic representation of Mozart as an irreverent, even ridiculous conduit for divine inspiration is undeniably intriguing, but it distorts modern observers’ view of the composer and the musical community that fostered his artistic upbringing. The Mozartists and Ian Page encourage the listener to abandon the idea that one must respect Mozart simply because he is acknowledged as one of music’s greatest geniuses. Rather, these musicians urge today’s listeners to ask why Mozart deserves continued attention and affection. Who was the man who made this music, and from whence came the tools needed to build such a legacy? With Mozart in London, Grabmusik, and Bastien und Bastienne, The Mozartists further their commitment to offering fastidiously-researched, joyously-performed answers to these questions.