Saturday 9 May 2020

Music aiming to deliberately provoke shock and terror: Ian Page talks about his new Sturm und Drang recording project with The Mozartists on Signum Classics

Ian Page and The Mozartists recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
Ian Page and The Mozartists recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
In the midst of their Mozart 250 project (exploring the output of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) year by year, and which this year reached 1770), Ian Page and The Mozartists are embarking on a survey of music by Mozart's contemporaries, specifically the style known as Sturm und Drang. This month [May 2020] the ensemble has the first of a planned seven Sturm und Drang discs out on Signum Classics. For the first disc, Ian and The Mozartists are joined by soprano Chiara Skerath for a programme of music by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) and Tommaso Traetta (1727-1779). I recently chatted to Ian, via Skype, to learn more about the disc and the project, but first of all 'what is Sturm und Drang?'.

Chiara Skerath recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
Chiara Skerath recording volume one of i
Ian explained that Sturm und Drang (usually translated as 'storm and stress') is a late 18th century movement which was a reaction again the calm, understated nicety of the rococo. Though the name itself, Sturm und Drang, is somewhat contentious as it came after the movement, but nowadays it makes a convenient way of referring to this movement which was an explosive reaction to rococo, with music aiming to deliberately provoke shock and terror, and extended emotions.

It is more than a musical idea, and initially was linked to the resurgence of the works of Shakespeare. The name Sturm und Drang comes from the name of a play by Friedrich Maximilan von Klinger (1752-1831), and whatever the art-form, Sturm und Drang involved turbulence and heightened drama. And music rather prefigures the literary works; the main literary Sturm und Drang dates from the 1770s whilst the music on Ian's first disc is from the 1760s.

They begin with music from Gluck's ballet Don Juan, which was premiered in Vienna in 1761 with a libretto by the Italian poet Ranieri de'Calzabigi (1714-1795), who would go on to write the librettos for Gluck's reform operas, Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, and Paride ed Elena. Don Juan was an important pre-cursor, significant perhaps of something being in the air, a desire to find extremes of emotion in the arts. Here Ian mentions studying Shakespeare's Hamlet when he was in his late teens and finding the piece extraordinarily visceral with its quest for what it is to be human. And for Ian, Sturm und Drang is mining the same emotions.

Musically, this means works in minor keys, fast tremolandos, stark orchestrations often with horns to the fore, exploring extremes and contrasts. The recording project started as quite a small idea, that there were quite a lot of minor key symphonies from the 1760s, 1770s and 1780s, many of which are not well known of often recorded, and Ian thought it would be interesting to put them in context. So there will be six discs featuring one of Haydn's great minor key symphonies, and one disc featuring Mozart's Symphony in G minor, No. 25. These are works where the faster movements are clearly Sturm und Drang whilst the slower movements still have extremes of pathos. To make a disc satisfying Ian is aware that you need variety of texture, tempo and mood, though he was still looking for music with heightened emotions.

The first disc features Haydn's Symphony No 49 in F minor, 'La passione', a great symphony and the only one of Haydn's symphonies where all four movements are in the same key (F minor). Haydn wrote a number of church sonata symphonies with a slow first movement, intended to draw you in (whereas livelier first movements were intended to get attention in the concert hall). La passione is the only one of Haydn's minor key symphonies to follow this format and have a slow first movement.

The Mozartists recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
The Mozartists recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
Around these well known symphonies, each disc will feature music from the same period and style by lesser known contemporaries, including opera arias. Operatic works often echoed Sturm und Drang, with Gluck in particular heralding a new style which was a reaction against opera seria. So on the first disc, in addition to Gluck's Don Juan, there are arias from Jommelli's Fetonte, Haydn's La canterina, and Traetta's Sofonisba.

And in volume three of the series, they will be investigating a form very much associated with Sturm und Drang, the melodrama, i.e. works for speaker and orchestra which involve fantastically heightened emotions. The disc will include melodramas by Jiri Benda, works which Mozart heard and thought 'this is the future of opera' and so included melodrama into Zaide and The Magic Flute. And this would develop into the use of melodrama in operas such as Beethoven's Fidelio and Weber's Der Freischutz. But, warns Ian, melodrama can easily outstay its welcome, so they will be recording 10 minutes chunks.

The centrepiece of the first disc is the wonderful Symphony in G minor, Op.3 No.3 by Franz Ignaz Beck. Written for strings and two horns, Ian finds it very unlike Mozart and Haydn and feels that Beck's music approaches Beethoven. Ian and the orchestra performed Beck's Symphony D major, Op.4 No.1 in 2016 at their 1766: A Retrospective concert at the Wigmore Hall [see my review]. Subsequent discs in the series will includes symphonies by Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813), Leopold Koželuch (1747-1818) and Joseph Martin Kraus'  (1756-1792) 'fantastic' Symphony in C minor (in fact it started in C sharp minor, but no-one could play it in tune so the composer transposed it down a semi-tone).

And each disc will feature a singer, performing vocal operatic works which explore the same language, with the orchestra becoming a voice in the drama, a visceral part of the operatic texture. Whilst some of these operatic arias are serious (a future disc includes a short, yet fast and furious aria by Josef Myslivicek (1737-1781)), Haydn also used Sturm und Drang as a comic device in opera to ridicule a character. Mozart does this in Fiordiligi's 'Come scoglio' in Cosi fan tutte, where the aria uses Sturm und Drang to exaggerate Fiordiligi's extremes of emotion. So, on the first disc Chiara Skerath sings an aria from Haydn's opera La canterina (from 1766, it is the earliest of Haydn's operas for which a complete, or almost, score has survived), which is a comic piece. Haydn has scored it not for two oboes and strings, but for two cor anglais and strings, so that in the emotional music the two wind instruments sound rather like quacking ducks, thus undermining the pathos.

The Mozartists recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
The Mozartists recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
The plan is to release one of the Sturm und Drang discs a year, but with a narrower gap between the first two. Volume Two has already been recorded and is planned for October this year. This features Vanhal's Symphony in D minor, and Haydn's Symphony No. 39 in G minor both of which use four horns. This latter feature was not so much to make a loud statement (though there are passages where all four play), but to give the composer a wider range of notes available. With the horns not using valves, quick changes of key were difficult as horns used different size crooks. So here, as was relatively common, there are pairs of horns crooked in different keys.

This second disc also features JC Bach's only Sturm und Drang symphony, as well as music from Gluck's Paride ed Elena (both of which date from the same year, 1770), plus a soulful aria from Haydn's Stabat Mater, and the aria by Myslivicek mentioned above.

Of course, Ian's Mozart 250 project continues as well and the ensemble was lucky that their recent Mozart in Italy weekend at Cadogan Hall on 6 to 8 March 2020 was able to go ahead, exploring the works Mozart heard during his 1770 visit to Italy and his own works written there. Naturally, the next few planned events are not happening, and the next one on the horizon is the performance of Mitridate, re di Ponto scheduled for November. Ian remains wary about this performance, not just about the current restrictions but also about whether there will be any money available to fund a performance.

Ian and The Mozartists have already recorded Mitridate, re di Ponto, including every note that Mozart wrote with the first versions of arias which were re-written at the behest of the performers. For the concert performance, Ian thus feels at liberty to pick and choose, and also to cut the work a little. But he says that he has always been influenced by a film interview with the great conductor Bruno Walter, whom Ian describes as a benign teddy bear, yet wonderfully wise. In the film, the subject of cuts comes up and Walter comments that 'I so often find a cut can make a piece feel longer'. So there will be cuts, but not at the expense of the storytelling, and in the past Ian has been bold when it came to cutting. When they performed Mitridate, re di Ponto in 2004, he completely cut the role of Marzio (a character who has recitative and just one aria) and a couple of other complete arias.

Ian Page recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
Ian Page recording volume one of Sturm und Drang
Next year, Mozart 250 will be exploring 1771, and they have a date in January for their retrospective concert, where the music very much overlaps with Sturm und Drang so they will be performing Haydn's Trauer Symphony and then recording it for the record series. From now on, Mozart becomes very prolific and Ian is exploring the possibility of doing two retrospective concerts a year, one exploring Mozart's music and the other the music of the period that he heard, which provides a background and deepens our understanding of Mozart's music. Next year, they also plan to perform Mozart's oratorio La betulia liberata, though Ian points out that as the work has characters, a story and stage directions, it is closer to opera, and they hope to stage it and to record it.

Sturm und Drang: volume 1

music by Gluck, Jommelli, Haydn, Beck and Traetta
Chiara Skerath (soprano)
The Mozartists (leader Matthew Truscott)
Ian Page (conductor)

Signum Classics SIGCD 619
Released 15 May 2020

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