Haydn, Mozart and Who?

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Bortniansky, Mozart: Lauren Snouffer (soprano), Hai-Ting Chinn (mezzo-soprano), Craig Phillips (bass-baritone), Clarion Orchestra, Steven Fox (conductor), Park Avenue Christian Church, New York, 16.10.2013 (SSM)

Haydn: Overtura Covent Garden
Dmitri Stepanovich Bortniansky: Excerpts from the operas Alcide and Le fils rival
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C “Jupiter,” K. 551


When we think about the Baroque period, names like Albinoni, Bach, Corelli, Couperin, Handel, Purcell, Rameau, Scarlatti, Telemann and Vivaldi come to mind. Every month, it seems, we read about the discovery of a “new” Baroque score or a “new” composer such as  Steffani, Hasse, Graupner, Heinchen and Graun. When we move to the Classical period, we think of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Who then would follow? Perhaps the Bach brothers, but after that? Divienne, Dussek, Kraus, Baguer, Bortniansky: composers whose names are as unfamiliar as their music.

There could be several reasons why there hasn’t been as much exploration in the Classical period as there has in the Baroque. Mozart so over-shadows his contemporaries that it might seem like a waste of time to research other composers and their works. Similarly, if the extant music of the day is not uniformly interesting, why bother finding more dull music. Works from the Baroque are rarely dull: that style required the ability to write complex, intricate music that at its worst is at least listenable. The rules of counterpoint and harmonics created an environment that allowed even non-geniuses to produce tolerable music. The change in style from the multi-voiced vertical music of the Baroque to the single-voiced horizontal music of the Classical period simplified the task of composing and often resulted in, well, simple music.

What are the compositional techniques that make for the greatest music of the Classical period?  One need only look at Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and see how it uses Baroque elements such as fugues, dissonance, suspensions, chord inversions and distant tonal modulations to produce its finest moments.

From the Bortniansky samples at this concert, it would be impossible to make any judgment as to the quality of his musical output. Bortniansky received his education from the prolific but stolid Galuppi. With ten years of study in Italy under his belt, he came back to the Russian court capable of writing music in both the French and Italian styles, but today he is known mostly for his liturgical works.

Steven Fox presented the premier of instrumental and vocal music by Bortniansky that he edited from scores he discovered in the British Library. The opening instrumental music from Alcide, “Danza degli Spiriti,” was bright and vibrant, rich with the warm sounds of the orchestra’s early instruments. Lauren Snouffer’s voice matched the orchestral timbre, and she sang the aria “Tu vedrai che virtù non paventa” with great conviction and expression. The acoustics in the Church may have affected the balance between singer and accompaniment, although there was no difficulty in hearing her voice.

The language changed from Italian to French for the remainder of the program. Snouffer stood out in the arias, backed by mezzo Hai Ting Chinn and joined by bass-baritone Craig Phillips. Phillips was fine in his solo aria En homme j’agirais sans doute, although his French enunciation could have been stronger.

Haydn must have liked his Overtura Covent Garden  ̶  he used it twice, as the first movement of Symphony No. 62 and as an alternate final movement of his 53rd symphony.

Fox captured the pulsing energy of its exposition and contrasted this well with the more subdued minor-key middle section.

The performance of Mozart’s last symphony was a brave undertaking and was, for the most part, well executed. The tonal color produced by the orchestra’s early instruments was striking, highlighting instrumental lines not normally heard from modern instruments. The effect of this was to renew and refresh a work so often played by oversized orchestras. Moderate tempi were taken in all but the final movement which was played extremely fast. Some of the instrumentalists just couldn’t keep up, and there were moments that seemed to confound the brass and wind sections.

Stan Metzger

The Clarion Society’s adventuresome season continues:  Clarion Society