Mozart—Familiar and Rare—Heard Anew from Baroque Masters

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Haydn: Susanna Perry Gilmore (violin), Debra Nagy (oboe), Stephanie Corwin (bassoon), Ezra Seltzer (cello), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), First United Methodist Church, Akron, Ohio, 13.10.2018. (MSJ)

Mozart – Overture to La Finta Semplice, K. 51; Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550; Ballet Music from Idomeneo, K. 367 (ed. Sorrell)
Haydn – Allegro from Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major, Hob. I/105

Apollo’s Fire kicked off their 27th season with rare mastery. While the group tends to focus more on baroque repertory, with music director Jeannette Sorrell directing from the keyboard, they are equally potent in later works, with Sorrell directing from the podium.

The first half provided an interesting comparison and contrast, starting with a three-part overture that Mozart wrote when he was twelve. La finta semplice (‘The Fake Innocent’) was a comic opera the young composer was creating in 1768. Unfortunately, the production was undercut by intrigue and jealousy of the brilliant child’s gifts, and it had to be withdrawn from its projected Vienna premiere. It was finally presented in Mozart’s off-the-beaten-path hometown of Salzburg, but then was mostly forgotten.

The overture occasionally resurfaces, and it proves that the young Mozart was already a formidably skilled, articulate composer. The first section already finds the twelve-year-old standing toe-to-toe with adult composers of the period. Sorrell and the ensemble gave the piece the attention and distinction it deserves. While somewhat less distinctive, the subsequent slow section and dance-tempo finale were charming and played with joyous flair.

But for all the overture’s precocity, it was blown away by what came next. In 1768, young Mozart was a prodigious talent. By his final year, just 23 years later, he had become one of the most perceptive artists humanity has ever created. In its familiarity, Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony has become taken for granted and is often delivered in a standard rendition. Kudos to Sorrell for refusing to pass down tradition unthinkingly.

Instead of assuming that what is commonly heard is the only way, Sorrell has plunged into the score, as if for the first time. She has made connections, tying together fragments to create melody and accompaniment. She has judged sections to get a feel for the overall architecture. At first glance, it’s the Mozart Fortieth we know and love, but on closer examination, it’s full of new angles of light, new ways to lean into phrases. Everything is connected to everything else, but not always in the traditional manner. Accompanying figures are in many places handled in new ways that reveal the depth of Mozart’s genius: seemingly minor, passing phrases are as much a part of the argument as the main events.

The first movement was lean and urgent, but with a shrewd breathing pause between first and second themes. The second movement flowed at a true andante tempo, giving shape to what all too often is a bloated mass of boredom in less perceptive performances. And I’m delighted to report that instead of resorting to the mindless all-or-nothing approach on repeats, Sorrell picked and chose them where they made her conception feel right. The menuetto was sufficiently measured so that a slight dip in tempo rendered the trio exquisite. The finale was turbulent and fast, with the Apollo’s Fire players showing their lucidity, virtuosity, and emotional commitment. This was Mozart done at the highest level.

In lieu of a concerto, the audience was treated to the first movement of Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat. In her notes, Sorrell promised that the entire piece will appear on a program within a couple years, which will be highly anticipated, based on this performance. The first movement is very much a conversation among four diverse instruments, sometimes paired for discussion by type (strings or double reeds), other times by range (high vs. low), and still yet by contrast.

Seeing the players’ movements made it clear that Haydn was putting them through a tremendous workout, but the results were never strained. Susanna Perry Gilmore was ebullient in the violin solos, while Debra Nagy brought gleaming sweetness on her baroque oboe. Stephanie Corwin ensured that the bassoon part was not lost in the texture, making her statements with clarity and personality, while Ezra Seltzer played the cello solos with equal parts athleticism and wit. My only complaint is that we have to wait for a complete version!

In my collection of thousands of recordings, there is only one of Mozart’s ballet music from his opera Idomeneo. That one, a rather indifferent plod, never inspired me to take a closer look—let alone collect additional recordings. Sorrell proved that the problem was that recording, not the score. Inspired by traditional baroque dance forms, this ballet is rarely played by modern orchestras, but Sorrell demonstrated that a period instrument ensemble has the knowledge to make the most of it. She treated Mozart’s flourishes not as rigid filigree but as gestural flares, emphasizing the storytelling of the ballet, which recaps the main events of the opera, involving a hurricane and a sea monster. Sorrell also made her own judgements about the order of the dances, as there is no definitive sequence. All worked grandly, restoring this rarity to a place of honor.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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