Performances of great polish, stylistic awareness and sheer beauty from Ian Page and The Mozartists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Guglielmi, Mozart In Italy [1] – The Audition: Samantha Clarke (soprano), Rachel Kelly (mezzo), Stuart Jackson (tenor), The Mozartists / Ian Page (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 6.3.2020. (CC)

Mozart in Italy – The Audition (c) Martin Kendrick

Mozart – Symphony in D, K100/62a (1769); Symphony No.9 in C, K73/75a (1769?); ‘Se tutti I mali miei’, K83/73p (1770); ‘Ah, più tremar non voglio’, K 71 (fragment, 1770); ‘Misero me! … Misero pargoletto’, K77/77e (1770)

Pietro GuglielmiRuggiero (c. 1769): ‘In un mar di tante pene’; ‘Degna non è d’un soglio’; ‘Ah, spiegar non posso’; ‘A morte, men vada’; ‘Ingrata, mi sgridi’

Prefaced by an interesting talk by Cliff Eisen, Professor of Music History at King’s College, London, the Friday night event of this three-day Mozart in Italy spectacular was entitled ‘The Audition’. In December 1769, Leopold Mozart and his son set off from Salzburg for a 15-month tour of Italy. Still an early teenager (the Mozarts arrived in Milan on 23 January 1770, four days before Mozart turned 14), the music featured by the young Wolfgang is staggeringly inspired. The Mozarts stayed in Milan for over seven weeks and, backed by Count Karl Joseph Firmian, the Governor General of Lombardy, it was during this time that Mozart secured a commission to write an opera for the Carnival season at the Teatro Regio Ducal (the predecessor of La Scala); that opera was to be Mitridate, Re di Ponto, premiered on 26 December 1770.

The practice of extracting a symphony from a Cassation (K100) was common at the time, and that is how the Symphony in D, K100/62a, was formed. The original Cassation was formed of eight movements, and the four movements that formed this symphony offer a nicely rounded whole, the D major brightness reflected in the scoring (including oboes, trumpets and horns). It was lovely, too, to have the antiphonal violin layout so Mozart’s delicious second violin counterpoint in the first movement could be relished (more on layouts when we come to the First String Quartet later in the weekend). The gallant exchanges of the ‘Andante’ between woodwind and strings and the movement’s short duration pointed towards its cassation origins – it is thoroughly delightful – the bright and brash ‘Menuetto’ acting in fine contrast before a finale which contains some surprisingly complex moments. Interestingly, there was no immediate applause after the music finished – a measure of the work’s brevity perhaps?  But Page’s performance was impeccable, polished, full of life and, one felt, promise and optimism, his players supremely alert. The perfect way to start the mini-festival, in fact.

Tuscan-born Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi (1728-1804) composed no fewer than 95 operas: Ruggiero just precedes Mozart’s journey, premiered in Venice in May 1769; it then opened the carnival season in Venice the next season. The 13-year-old Mozart attended a performance at the Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica in Verona in January 1770; this was the first opera Mozart heard in Italy. An intriguing link is that Guglielmi’s librettist, Caterino Mazzolà was, years later, to provide the libretto for Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.

One of the privileges of attending The Mozartists’ events is the introduction to new repertoire. There is a dearth of recordings of Guglielmi, so one hopes fervently for a release off the back of this concert: there is a Bongiovanni disc of mixed works (opera sinfonias, a couple of symphonies and Credidi in D minor) currently out there, and that appears to be about it, along with, on the web, a generous hour-plus of excerpts from the opera La pastorella nobile via YouTube (link). So, to hear the long lyrical lines of Bradamante’s aria ‘In un mar di tante pene’ sung with exquisite sweetness by the phenomenally gifted Samantha Clarke (no relation) was a joy indeed. Her sound is wonderfully open and free; cadenzas are delivered with a fine sense of freedom, large leaps negotiated easily. Tenor Stuart Jackson has a voice just the right size for interacting with these forces: Oronte’s aria ‘Degna non è d’un soglio’ contained well articulated runs as well as a final passage that was clearly more of the baritone or even bass registers. It was a pity that Rachel Kelly was a little quiet in Ruggiero’s aria ‘Ah, spiegar non posso’ – this was not something that affected her later on the Sunday; ‘A morte, men vado’ fared better. But the trio, ‘Ingrata, mi sgridi’ was magical, not least when the two ladies, Samantha Clarke and Rachel Kelly, sang together, their voices perfectly matched. The selection from Ruggiero offered a cornucopia of discoveries and, like all concerts of this ilk should, inspired this listener at least towards further exploration of this repertoire.

The title of the concert was ‘The Audition’. It refers to a concert on 12 March 1770 in Milan, which had served in the manner of an audition in front of some 150 aristocrats. Although there is no certainty as to which arias were actually performed at that audition concert, the musicologist Anthony Pryor has posited the three heard here, citing consistency of instrumentation and text (all come from Metastasio). These were prefaced by a performance of the Symphony in C, K73/75a. Bright and ceremonial in its first movement (although with some delicious harmonic twists relished here by Page and his players), its ‘Andante’ was taken swiftly, but still retained a sense of repose –a smiling repose.  What was interesting was the mix of the courtly and the grand in the ‘Menuetto e Trio’; the finale, a Molto allegro, is replete with harmonic sequences, perhaps not Mozart’s greatest inspiration but full of vim nonetheless.

Watching Ian Page from a closer vantage point than the Wigmore Hall permits allows one to appreciate the subtleties of his craft. From a distance he can maybe seem workaday, but that is because all of his efforts are concerned with the performers and the music alone, down to the characteristic way he has of a left-hand sweep to bring in the cadence at the end of cadenzas (which allows for a harpsichord arpeggiation, for example). This, coupled with his clear musicological sense of rigour, makes him one of the most perceptive of Mozartians out there.

Using a text from Metastasio’s Demofoonte, the character Dircea’s Se tutti i mali miei, K83/73p is deliciously emotional. Again, Clarke’s openness of voice, her ease of delivery and her clear resonance with Mozartian line offered huge joy, as did the projection of the character’s anxiety in the second stanza. The writing asks for use of the soprano’s upper reaches, superbly negotiated by Clarke. It was fascinating to hear the surviving fragment of the aria ‘Ah, più tremar non voglio’, Matusio’s opening aria of Demofoonte, delivered with confidence by Stuart Jackson, the music just stopping when the notes run out. But it was Rachel Kelly who had the last words as the character of Timante in the extended and dramatic ‘Misero me! … Misero pargoletto’ (again from Demofoonte). Mozart’s textures at the opening are supremely dark; his melody at ‘Misero pargoletto’ simply glorious. The final stanza Is beauty encapsulated, as is the very close. Interesting we had the reverse of the situation with the first piece of the evening, with applause now cruelly immediate after Mozart’s celestial splendour.

The joy of discovery throughout was only matched by the joy the musicians exuded in performing this music with the utmost freshness. This, surely, is a crowning point of musicology – to bring these works to our attention in performances of great polish, stylistic awareness and sheer beauty.

Colin Clarke

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