United Kingdom 1768: a retrospective (MOZART 250): Chiara Skerath (soprano), Katy Bircher (flute), The Mozartists / Ian Page (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 23.1.2018 (CC)
Haydn – Symphony No.26 in D minor, ‘Lamentatione’; Lo speziale: ‘Amore nel mio petto’, ‘Salamelica, Semprugna cara’
Jommelli – Fetonte: ‘Ombre che tacite qui sede’
J.C. Bach – Flute Concerto in D
Mozart – La finta semplice: Sinfonia; ‘Amoretti, che ascosi qui siete’
Hasse – Piramo e Tisbe: ‘Perderò l’amato bene’
Vanhal – Symphony in D minor (Bryan d1)
This splendid concert rang the bells on the fourth year of MOZART 250, a celebration of the year 1768; not a consistently great year for Mozart personally, what with the refusal to stage his opera, La finta semplice (which makes an appearance in the present programme). Later in 2018, Classical Opera will perform Haydn’s Applausus cantata, while in Summer there is a full staging of Finta semplice in both London and Birmingham, before the Autumn brings both live performance and recoding of Bastien und Bastienne.
It was a brilliant idea to begin with Haydn’s Symphony No.26. Its nickname derives from Haydn’s own heading of the oldest MS, ‘Passio et Lamentatio’. Both of the first two movements (of three: the work ends with a ‘Menuet e Trio’) use Holy Week Gregorian chants. The finale might possibly have been added as a concert ending for two movements that were possibly heard in liturgical circumstances. No missing the ‘Sturm und Drang’ element of the first movement (performed with exposition repeat); syncopations were beautifully placed by The Mozartists. The brilliantly controlled low oboe in the Adagio used to present the second movement’s plainchant (from Lamentations of Jeremiah) decorated by an elegant top line, underscored just what a fascinating piece this is, while positively explosive accents in the finale’s Trio fully honoured the work’s inherent seriousness and sense of drama.
Swiss-Belgian soprano Chiara Skerath had, only two days prior to this concert, performed the role of Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra National de Bordeaux; in March she is scheduled to sing Amour in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at the Opéra National de Paris. Here, her first offering was Phaeton’s aria ‘Ombre che tacite qui sede,’ the last aria of Act II in Niccolò Jommelli’s Fetonte. The opera includes grand spectacle (a chariot flies to the sun, an underwater palace is the backdrop for a marine ballet …). Phaeton’s attempt to ascend to the heavens while conquering fear finds Jommelli using highly effective, otherworldly scoring. Skerath’s voice is remarkable, as is her musicality. She has a terrific, full voice which she projects perfectly; she has the low register Jommelli’s aria demands, too. The contrast to the J. C. Bach Flute Concerto was massive. This piece does date from 1768 but its history is confused, what with the manuscripts of the three movements being separated from each other in the nineteenth century so the first is in Berlin (the Staatsbibliothek), the finale in Paris’ Bibliothèque nationale and the central Larghetto in the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels (this last identified less than twenty years ago). The trio of movements may possibly still not be the original deal, but the concerto is everything one might expect from this composer: gallant, beautifully constructed and consistently charming. Katy Bircher (a member of The Mozartists) was a splendid soloist; the first movement cadenza could almost be by Mozart. The light scoring meant that the low flute melodies came through beautifully.
Two arias from Haydn’s opera Lo speziale (‘The Apothecary’) completed the first half, again beautifully given by Skerath. The two arias are sung in the opera by Volpino (whose name means ‘Little Fox’). The first aria, ‘Amore nel mio,’ finds Volpino rejected in love, firing off a revenge aria. Ian Page ensured the emphatic accompaniment fully supported Chiara Skerath’s phenomenal high register, itself powerful but never uncomfortable of tone The one surviving Act III aria, ‘Salamelica, Semprugna cara’ (Greetings to you, dear Sempronio) finds Volpino pretending to be a Turkish pasha, with hilarious results. Skerath threw herself fully into Haydn’s wit. She has a winning stage presence, and her character seemed the perfect fit to Haydn’s delightful aria.
It was lovely to hear the Overture to Mozart’s La finta semplice, bright and sparkling, before Chiara Skerath delivered Rosina’s aria, ‘Amoretti, che acosi qui siete’ (Little Cupids who are hiding here), her performance marked by preternaturally pure slurs and smooth legato. Her final contribution was Thisbe’s aria ‘Perdorò l’amato bene’ (I shall lose my beloved darling) from Johann Adolf Hasse’s opera Piramo e Tisbe. Here, Tisbe is agreeing to separate from Pyramus in florid, expressive lines. Skreath was positively mesmeric in this aria. While her concert demeanour is bubbly, Skerath can move instantly into the emotions demanded by her characters. Musically, she was faultless throughout. I look forward to hearing more of this fabulous singer.
Finally, a ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphony by Johann Baptist Vanhal whose scoring included four horns (two playing in the home minor and two in the relative major). The energy of the first movement never let up in this performance; the serenity of the arioso provided necessary balance. The Menuetto was surprisingly fast, an implied vivace, before the bustling finale (with a Mozartian contrasting subject) brought the evening to an energising conclusion.