Friday 28 January 2022

1772: A Retrospective - The Mozartists in Mozart, Haydn and more exploring the musical world of the 16-year-old composer

Mozart 250

1772: A Retrospective
- Mozart, Jommelli, Traetta, JC Bach, Gassmann, Haydn; Ian Page, The Mozartists, Chiara Skerath, Jessica Cale; Cadogan Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 January 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Reform is in the air: Mozart alongside music by his contemporaries from the year he turned 16

It is 1772 and Mozart has just turned 16. He has an official position at the Archbishop's court in Salzburg, and a new boss, the far less relaxed Archbishop Colloredo. In Naples, Niccolo Jommelli completes his penultimate opera, Cercere placata despite having suffered a stroke, whilst in St Petersburg, Tommaso Traetta debuts his final masterpiece, Antigona. Reform is in the air. Welcome to the musical world of Ian Page and The Mozartists' 1772: A Retrospective at Cadogan Hall, with music by Mozart, Jommelli, Traetta, JC Bach, Gassmann and Haydn, with sopranos Jessica Cale and Chiara Skerath.

We began with Mozart's Symphony No. 15 in G major, K.124, written whilst Mozart was at home at the Archbishop's court. Using a standard orchestra with two oboes, horns, strings and bassoon, it is in four movements and begins to show Mozart's growing symphonic grasp. The opening Allegro was vigorous and good-humoured with perhaps some quirks of humour, then a graceful Andante that had its pointed moments too. The minuet was as robust dance with strong dynamic contrasts, and the Presto finale featured vivid, tight rhythms. The whole was lovingly performed by Page and his musicians, demonstrating the way the teenage Mozart was moving towards the mature composer.

Niccolo Jommelli was one of those composers who, alongside Gluck, was experimenting with creating newer types of opera, integrating Italian and French elements to create what we know of as Reform Opera. Having written a whole sequence of major works for the Duke of Württemberg, who gave the composer virtual carte blanche, Jommelli had retired to Naples in 1768 and suffered a stroke in 1771. 

Cercere placata was premiered in 1772, a commission to celebrate the festivities surrounding the birth their first child to King Ferdinand IV and Queen Maria Caroline of the Two Sicilies. Roughly based on the myth of Ceres and Proserpina, we heard Chiara Skerath in an aria from Proserpina, railing against her mother as her lover is sent for execution. First there was a dramatic accompanied recitative that showed Jommelli's Gluckian sympathies. The piece was very fluid, the music following the drama. The aria was perhaps more conventional, but still with that sense of dramatic freedom and Skerath conveyed this very well indeed, though I wished she had been slightly less wedded to her music (understandable in such a rare piece). And certainly I wanted to hear more.

Then came an aria from another composer very much associated with operatic reform. Tommaso Traetta spent part of his career writing operas for Parma, where French influence was very high so he wrote operas influenced by Rameau. In St Petersburg in 1772, Traetta returned to this French-inspired dramatic style for Antigona. In the aria we heard, sung by Chiara Skerath, Antigone laments the loss of her brother (whose body she buries secretly against the orders of her uncle Creon).  The accompanied recitative showed a striking freedom to his approach to the drama, often letting the voice be virtually alone. The whole was imbued with tragic melancholy with the aria having a Gluckian simplicity to it, which Skerath made very touching.

Whilst working for the Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart wrote a series of Epistle Sonatas, short instrumental movements to be played when the celebrant crossed the church to read the Gospel. We heard two, one in E flat, the other in B flat, the first graceful, the second strong and vigorous. I could imagine neither being used in a church service today, and the strong atmosphere each movement conjured up seemed a world away from a liturgical service!

Mozart greatly admired Johann Christian Bach and JC Bach's operas can have a remarkable prefiguring of the younger composer. Bach's Endimione was a serenata created for a benefit at the King's Theatre, Haymarket in London in 1772 for a German flautist visiting London. We heard a scene for Diana, sung by Jessica Cale, where in accompanied recitative and aria she laments having fallen in love with Endimione. Cale really brought out the dramatic element in the recitative, making it compelling. The aria was poised, evoking early Mozart and while not plumbing the depths it had a graceful emotionalism about it.

We finished with an aria from Florian Leopold Gassmann's oratorio La Betulia liberata (Mozart had set the same libretto in 1771 for Padua, though it may never have been performed). Gassmann was another Gluck-influenced composer (he replaced Gluck as Theatherkapellmeister in 1772) and Gassmann's pupil and protégé Antonio Salieri would become an important representative of the next generation of Gluck-inspired composer. The aria we heard, sung by Jessica Cale, was a simile aria about a sailor in a storm, which the composer used as an excuse to give us some vivid virtuoso moments. There were hints of Gluck in the writing, but it was defiantly a bravura piece, brilliantly sung by Cale.

After the interval with moved on to one of Mozart's major pieces from the period, Il sogno di Scipione. Written in 1771 as a celebratory homage to the previous Archbishop, who died before it could be performed, Mozart wrote a new, longer dedication aria, the 'licenza', for the new premiere in front of the new Archbishop. In this form the work was probably performed during the Archbishop's investiture celebrations, but we have no concrete proof. Sung by Chiara Skerath, we had a rather touching recitative with a luscious accompaniment followed by an aria that was full of notes indeed, Skerath gave a bravura performance, making all the passagework very engaging.

The evening ended with a mature symphony by a major composer. Haydn's Symphony No. 52 in C minor (which probably dates from this year). It is the last of the composer's so-called 'Sturm und Drang' symphonies, full of vivid drama. Haydn was 40 at the time, and clearly at the height of his powers. The work began with the strong, dark music of the Allegro assai con brio, a movement that felt full of intrigue and danger. Haydn adds to the danger element by having one of the horns playing perilously high (some superb playing here), and throughout there was a wonderful feeling drama. The Andante second movement was seemingly more conventional, graceful but there was veiled dark tone too as well as strong contrasts. A stylish and characterful though steady minuet let to a Presto finale that was again rather intense. The high horn writing returned and this was all about the drama.

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