Wednesday, 18 January 2017

1767 - a retrospective: eleven-year old Mozart in context

Gemma Summerfield, Ian Page, Stuart Jackson and orchestra of Classical Opera - Flickr photo credit treble2309 (Andrea Liu)
Gemma Summerfield, Ian Page, Stuart Jackson, orchestra of Classical Opera
Flickr photo credit treble2309 (Andrea Liu)
1767 - a retrospective, Mozart, Gassmann, Gluck, JC Bach, Abel, Haydn, Arne; Gemma Summerfield, Stuart Jackson, Ashley Riches, orchestra of Classical Opera, Ian Page; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 17 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Over view of the music from Mozart's eleventh year, including some of his first major pieces

Ian Page and Classical Opera's Mozart 250 project has reached 1767, and on Tuesday 17 January 2017, Ian Page and the orchestra of Classical Opera were joined by soprano Gemma Summerfield, tenor Stuart Jackson and bass baritone Ashley Riches for a survey of music from that year. From the pen of the 11-year old Mozart we heard his Symphony No. 6 in F major K43, Grabmusik K42 and the duet 'Natus cadit' from Apollo et Hyacinthus K38. Other music from that year in the programme included arias from Gluck's Alceste, Gassmann's Amore e Psiche, JC Bach's Carattaco, and Haydn's Stabat Mater, plus Abel's aria Fena le belle lagrime (notable for its use of an obbligato viola da gamba) and Arne's Symphony in C major.

Ashley Riches, Ian Page, orchestra of Classical Opera - Flickr photo credit treble2309 (Andrea Liu)
Ashley Riches, Ian Page, orchestra of Classical Opera
Flickr photo credit treble2309 (Andrea Liu)
1767 saw Mozart and his family back in Salzburg after their extensive travels of the previous year. Mozart's compositions for the year would include his first operas and oratorios as well as his first keyboard concertos. Mozart's Symphony No. 6 was written in Vienna in late 1767, and was the first of his symphonies to use the Viennese model of four movements (with a minuet and trio) rather than three. It is a remarkable work for an eleven-year old, not up to the standard of Mozart's mature symphonies, but certainly on a level with much of the music going on around him. The opening Allegro had a lively charm and was robust and vigorous, whilst the lyrical Andante had a lovely texture. The Menuetto & Trio was again robust, briskly striding and there was an infectious Allegro finale.

Next we had a sequence of arias from operas premiered in 1767, two from Vienna which Mozart would have either heard or heard about, and two from London by composers whose work he would have heard during his visit in 1766. Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729-1774) was a native of Bohemia, his Amore e Psiche premiered in Vienna in 1767. We heard the aria 'Bella in in vago viso' sung by Gemma Summerfield, a delightfully lyrical piece about happiness and love. There were attractive orchestral textures, and lyrical vocal line sung fluidly by Summerfield with some stylish passagework. Not an earthshattering piece, but charming.

Gluck's Alceste, premiered in Vienna in December 1767, was more ground-breaking being the second of Gluck and Calzabigi's reform operas. The best known music from the opera, and the most excerpted, are the arias for the title role and then we know the work better in its later French incarnation. Tenor Stuart Jackson sang Admeto's aria 'No, crudel, non posso' from Act Two, when the character has just learned of his wife's sacrifice of her own life for his. We plunged straight in with some dramatic recitative, where Jackson made the words count, and in the aria there was a lovely combining of text and expressive line with an intense climax. Despite a fine performance,  the piece did not tell quite as much as it might have done perhaps because it is not an easy piece to excerpt as it relies for its effect on the dramatic context and even the climax seems to be leading into further drama.

JC Bach's opera Carattaco was premiered in London in 1767; the previous year the young Mozart had heard Bach's operas in London and been much influenced. Carattaco deals rather improbably with the Caractacus and his legendary defiance of the Romans. Ashley Riches sang the aria 'Sopra quell capo indegno', where the character Teomanzio vents his anger on treachery. It was a far showier piece than the Gluck. Ashley Riches vigorous solo part was complemented by some vigorous orchestral passages, and Riches impressed in the busy and athletic vocal writing.

Ian Page and Classical Opera - photo Ben Ealovega
Ian Page and Classical Opera - photo Ben Ealovega
The first half concluded with another aria from London, Frena le belle lagrime by JC Bach's colleague Karl Friedrich Abel (the two collaborated on the concert series at the Hannover Square Music Rooms). Abel wrote mainly instrumental music but he contributed this aria to a pasticcio Sifare which premiered in March 1767. Written for soprano, the aria has an extensive obbligato part for viola da gamba, a somewhat old-fashioned instrument for the time but it was Abel's own instrument. The aria was a large scale and very appealing piece. Opening with an extensive viola da gamba solo (Emilia Benjamin) over muted strings, it was gentle and elegant work, Gemma Summerfield made the solo soprano, accompanied by the sighing of the viola da gamba, elegantly expressive, the whole executed with a beautiful sense of style.

The second half opened with a more substantial work by Mozart, his short oratorio movement Grabmusik K42 (the first part of a work with subsequent parts by other composers), a dialogue between the soul (Ashley Riches) and the angel (Gemma Summerfield). Each character gets an aria, that of the soul was turbulent with busy passagework which was stylishly sung by Riches, plus vigorous horns, whilst that for the angel was mellifluous and rather intense. Linked by dramatic recitative, the work concludes with a duet where the anxious soul and the mellifluous angel final come together.

Haydn's Stabat Mater, which premiered at Eisenstadt in 1767, is a major work which was popular during Haydn's lifetime but seems to be somewhat neglected nowadays. We heard two arias from it. Sutart Jackson sang the quietly moving 'Vidit suum dulcem natum', full of lovely imaginative moments, whilst Ashley Riches gave a vivid account of the more vigorous and acrobatic 'Flammis orci ne succendar'

Thomas Arne is best known for his stage works, but he wrote instrumental music too. His Four New Overtures or Symphonies were published in London in 1767. We heard the Symphony No. 1 in C major, a three movement work which opened with a lively Allegro. Full of accented notes, we noticed that Arne's melodic material was subsidiary to his striking variations of texture. The Andante was elegantly expressive, whilst the final Presto was full of scurrying figures.

The final work in the programme was the profoundly lovely duet from Mozart's first opera Apollo et Hycinthus, a work which Classical Opera will be performing in full later this year. Sung by Gemma Summerfield and Stuart Jackson, 'Natus cadit' was all muted strings and elegant lyricism. A little gem.

For their encore, Ian Page and the orchestra of Classical Opera were joined once again by Ashley Riches for an aria from Telemann's Orpheus. The work does not date from 1767 (it was premiered in Hamburg in 1726), but Telemann died in 1767. A lovely sober piece, beautifully sung by Riches.

This was a fascinating programme. I have to confess that I found much of Mozart's music creditable and impressive, though there was the odd gem. But the format of the evening, with lots of smaller items, seemed not to quite gel perhaps because a couple of the arias in Act One were quite short, you wanted Gluck and JC Bach to be given more time to establish their voice. But this remains a fascinating format, allowing us to glimpse the varieties of the music from a particular era.

Ian Page and Classical Opera will be continuing to explore 1767 during 2017, with performances of Mozart's The First Commandment (21 & 22 March at St John's Smith Square), keyboard concertos with Kristian Bezuidenhout (16 May at the Wigmore Hall) and Apollo et Hycanithus (10 June at Birmingham Town Hall, 12 & 13 June at St John's Smith Square).

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