Sunday 8 August 2021

Wigglesworth, Mozart and Ravel: the Academy of St Martin in the Fields' in a lovely journey around Mozart's concert aria

Nancy Storace by Pietro Bettelini (1788)
Nancy Storace, for whom Mozart wrote Ch'io mi scordi di te
by Pietro Bettelini from 1788,

Wigglesworth, Mozart, Ravel; Sophie Bevan, Ryan Wigglesworth, Academy of St Martin's in the Fields; Church of St Martin in the Fields

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 August 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
An intriguing and engaging programme with Ryan Wigglesworth as pianist, conductor and composer, joined by Sophie Bevan for music centred round Mozart's great concert aria, Chi'io mi scordi di te

For their final concert of their current season at the Church of St Martin in the Fields on 6 August 2021, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) was joined by soprano Sophie Bevan and conductor/pianist/composer Ryan Wigglesworth which included the Notturno from Wigglesworth's Piano Concerto, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12, Ravel's Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, and Mozart's Chi'io mi scordi di te, with Wigglesworth directing from the piano. The concert is available online from 13 August 2021.

When Mozart and soprano Nancy Storace premiered the concert aria Ch'io mi scordi di te at her farewell concert in Vienna in 1787 (Storace had sung Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro but was returning to London) what did the audience expect? The aria begins with a dramatic accompanied recitative, with Mozart presumably directing from the keyboard as might be expected, but then at the beginning of the aria the solo piano enters and we are suddenly in the world of Mozart's piano concertos. It is a daring and astonishing piece, a lovely farewell gift to a much loved singer. It is also a devil to programme, here ASMF had had to clever idea of inviting composer, conductor, pianist Ryan Wigglesworth to direct a programme from the keyboard, joined by soprano Sophie Bevan. The result was a lovely exploration of voice, piano and ensemble, moving from piano concertos, to Ravel's music for soprano and ensemble (including piano) to Mozart's aria.

We began with the slow movement, Notturno from Wigglesworth's Piano Concerto for piano and chamber orchestra which Wigglesworth (as conductor) premiered at the 2019 BBC Proms with Marc-André Hamelin (piano) and Britten Sinfonia. The Notturno, scored for just piano, strings and harp, is a set of variations on a Polish folk-song which Wigglesworth first heard sung round a late-night camp fire, hence the night-time associations. The piece began with rather intense night-music but there were sharp chords too, this was not entirely seductive. When the piano came in (shadowed by the harp) the tonality was fascinatingly uncertain, major and minor. Throughout this lovely work, Wigglesworth combined complex harmonies with a lyrical expressionist feel and gorgeous textures. It certainly made me want to hear the complete concerto, and Wigglesworth proved wonderfully deft at directing it from the keyboard.

At the end of the Wigglesworth, the solo piano part gets higher and quieter, going off into infinity and immediately ASMF launched into the opening tutti from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12, which is one of three he wrote for sale by subscription in 1782. Works designed to be approachable and playable by the subscribers at home, yet also giving hints at the later, grander concertos. The opening movement was full of elegant vigour, with Wigglesworth contributing some dazzling fingerwork. The middle movement had some surprisingly passionate moments, yet with an intimate and tender piano, then we ended with a movement of lively wit. As soloist Wigglesworth brought out the music's charm but with moments of passion and three stylishly imaginative cadenzas.

When the Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire was premiered in Berlin in 1912, the composers Stravinsky and Varese were there and reports of the work spread back to Paris and influenced composers to write for voice and small ensemble, escaping the ‘enormous apparatus of the orchestra’. But Ravel had already done this, without voice, for his mini-harp concerto, Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet, and in 1912 (possibly before Schoenberg), Maurice Delage wrote his Quatre poemes Hindous for flute, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and string quartet. Clearly something was in the air.

Ravel's Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé is scored for soprano, two flutes, two clarinets, piano and string quartet. Ravel was a great admirer of the poetry by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and the Mallarmé songs appeared around the same time as the first complete edition of Mallarmé's poetry. 

The first song, 'Soupir' introduced us to the gorgeous soundworld, a magic garden with Sophie Bevan's gently seductive voice. There was a feeling of amazing detail in the orchestration yet also the performers made us think that there was all the time in the world - gorgeous, sensual and delicate. 'Placet futile' continued the sound world, making us admire Ravel's remarkable ear for textures. This was playing full of character and delicacy, with Bevan singing with lovely liquid tone. The final song, 'Surgi de la croupe et du bond' was more thoughtful and intriguing, you felt that alongside the seductive element there were hints of expressionism too. These are works usually performed in chamber concerts, and it was lovely to hear them here, so finely performed and yet forming a fascinating bridge.

The final work was Mozart's concert aria. Bevan and the orchestra made the opening accompanied recitative dramatic, Bevan's use of the text really meant something yet she also floated phrases beautifully. The piano entry was a delightful surprise, with Wigglesworth's elegant fingerwork in dialogue with Bevan's finely phrased vocal line. Yet Bevan brought real drama to the piece too and the whole created ten minutes of pure magic.

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