United Kingdom 1772 – A Retrospective (MOZART 250): Jessica Cale, Chiara Skerath (sopranos), The Mozartists / Ian Page (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 27.1.2022. (CC)
Mozart – Symphony No. 15 in G major, K.124
Jommelli – ‘E Alfeo m’inganno?… Barbari, ah! non ferite’ from Cerere placata
Traetta – ‘Ombra cara… Io resto sempre a piangere’ from Antigona
Mozart – Epistle Sonatas in E flat major, K.67; B flat major, K.68
J. C. Bach – ‘Oh Dei! Qual freddo… Se tiranni, oh Dei, non siete’ from Endimione
Gassmann – ‘Quel nocchier che in gran procella’ from La Betulia liberata
Mozart – ‘Ah, perché cercar degg’io’ (2nd version) from Il sogno di Scipione
Haydn – Symphony No.52 in C minor
On the very date of this concert (but 250 years previously), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart celebrated his sixteenth birthday. He had returned to Salzburg after a four-month trip to Milan (for Ascanio in Alba), and remained there until late October, at which point he began the last of the Italian tours with his father, Leopold. In 1772 also, he consolidated his position at Salzburg to become officially in the Archbishop’s employ.
This concert gave a general overview of the musical scene in 1772 – there will be a more focused concert later in 2022. Mozart’s Symphony No.15 in G is full of vitality, Certainly, we are not in the arena of mature Mozart, but how overflowing with ideas this piece is, and Page and his Mozartists (including harpsichord continuo) delivered a performance of astonishing freshness. Relishing Mozart’s delicious waves of dissonance gave the music a real dramatic aspect. The gallant Andante perhaps held the odd slightly scrappy moment in this performance, but how racy was the Menuetto – affording perfect contrast for the Trio. Try listening to, say, Karl Böhm’s Berlin Philharmonic recording after hearing Page and the music just sounds pedestrian in Böhm’s hands – with Page it was wonderfully alive, and the tempo meant the Trio could move along nicely, too. The finale (a Presto) could easily have been an opera buffa overture here.
One of the true joys of Page’s extravaganzas is the discovery of rare opera from the period. In this instance it was from Jommelli’s Cerere placata. The Mozartists’ recording of that composer’s Il Vologeso was a major achievement (interestingly in relation to our own times the libretto, loosely based on Ovid, is by a distinguished Neapolitan epidemiologist, Michele Sarcone). Here, it was Proserpina’s aria ‘E Alfeo m’inganno?… Barbari, ah! non ferite’ that was on display and offered another opportunity to revel in the skills of Chiara Skerath (see, in particular, the review here of the 1768 Retrospective at the Wigmore Hall).
Skerath’s ability to deliver and mould every word of the accompanied recitative was remarkable, as was the aria ‘Barbari … ah non ferite’ (‘Barbarians … don not wound me’), dramatic, certainly, and with Skerath in total command of the wide range demanded by Jommelli (Proserpina is in torment about the fate of her lover and expresses such to her mother in this aria that encompasses fury, emotional pain and begging).
The music of Tommaso Traetta (1727-79) is arguably even more obscure than Jommelli’s; and both certainly deserve our attention. Written in St Petersburg, Antigona is an adaptation from the Sophocles by Marco Coltellini. The second act brings a nocturnal ceremony in which Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone, cremates the body of her brother Polynices, against the wishes of her uncle, Creon. Skerath again here, and how poignantly the strings set up the atmosphere, hushed, whispered almost, but with an underlying unrest. Jommelli’s harmonic workings in the aria (‘Io resto sempre e piangere’ / ‘I shall remain and weep forever’) are a thing of beauty, a gentle lilt accompanying the vocal line. Skerath was, again, infinitely touching and convincing, her golden legato remarkable.
Mozart’s Epistle Sonatas are rarely heard today – as Page pointed out, little of Mozart is now seen as truly obscure, but these veer in that direction. There are 15 in total. The music of these little pieces was played while the celebrant in a religious service crossed the space before delivering a reading. They are also known as ‘Church Sonatas’. Performed therefore at home in Salzburg, they are little gems, the gentle E flat (K 67) with its gentle violin theme contrasting with the brisker, almost Overture-like K 68 in E flat (Mozart inserts some lovely imitation in this one, too).
The packed first half also included two arias from a second soprano, Jessica Cale, who has recently completed her studies at the Royal College of Music International Opera Studio; she has also won First Prize at the 2020 Kathleen Ferrier Awards and the Audience Prize at the 2020 London Handel Prize. After her debut with The Mozartists, Cale was appointed an Associate Artist – later this year she will perform in Bach’s Johannes-Passion at the Barbican in April and then in June/July, she takes the part of Niece I in Britten’s Peter Grimes at Venice’s La Fenice. Here she gave us Diana’s recitative and aria from the ‘Parte Seconda’ of J. C. Bach’s Endimione – a piece the ‘London Bach’ referred to as a ‘Serenata’ (hence parts rather than acts). Cale has a lovely, fresh voice that is simultaneously highly emotive – a winning combination in this repertoire. The aria, ‘Se tiranni, oh Dei, non siete’ (‘If you are not tyrants, oh Gods’) is representative of the J. C. Bach everyone knows and loves. There’s a cleanliness and directness of expression; everything is the very definition of tasteful and well-balanced. Cale’s handling of intervallic leaps is remarkable – utterly clean, ever perfectly in tune. She captured the gloriously lyrical basis of Bach’s aria, too – Diana is here lamenting falling in love with Endimione (Endymion). How splendid, too, Page’s lead-back to the top of the aria.
As a lifelong fan of J. C. Bach, for me, another aria would have been ideal; instead, it was Amital’s aria ‘Quel nocchier che in gran procella’ (‘The sailor who in a great storm’) from Florian Leopold Gassmann’s opera La Betulia liberata. Born in Bohemia in 1729, he ran away to Venice to study music when he encountered familial opposition to such a career. He is known for creating the Tonkünstler-Sozietät (‘Society of Musicians’) in Vienna to support the widows and orphans of deceased musicians (an early version of Help Musicians (formerly the Musicians Benevolent Fund). This was the first piece Gassmann wrote for his society, and it was premiered in March 1772 (Mozart had set the same libretto the previous year to fulfil a commission from Padua). Gassmann succeeded Gluck as Kapellmeister at the Kärtnertortheater in Vienna, and there are indeed some Gluckian moments in the aria (with its long orchestral introduction). Gassmann is no Mozart (even a 16-year-old Mozart) but his music is engaging, as was Cale’s performance. Page’s players enlivened the recitative as much as is possible, and the simile of a storm brought forth some properly virtuoso singing from the soprano.
Post-interval, just two pieces. It was Skerath who performed the second version of ‘Ah, perchè cercar degg’io’ from Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione. This is a licenza which is a piece in praise of an official personage here originally the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, Sigismund von Schrattenbach. But that particular Archibishop died before the performance of the work, so Mozart overhauled the piece for the new Archbishop, Hieronymus Colloredo. The revised version is twice as long as the original. Skerath and the Mozartists have recorded this opera incidentally. In performance terms, frankly I could listen to Skerath’s recitatives all day; the expansive lines of the aria were delivered with a beautifully open voice – and how accurate the semiquavers and leaps. A cadenza flourish was particularly relishable.
Finally, Haydn. Page was at pains both in the pre-concert talk and in a spoken introduction in the concert itself to remind us of the rich vein of invention available in Haydn’s non-nicknamed symphonies – of which No.52 is one. No.52 probably dating around 1772 (we know for definite that it had been completed by 1774). We are towards the end of Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ period – the piece is notable for horn parts in C-alto and C-basso – and the C-alto movements go screamingly high (with the first horn asked to cherry pick screamers from nowhere). Gavin Edwards, the horn player responsible on this occasion, was on fine form. The entire orchestra seemed to give its all, in fact. ‘Sturm und Drang’ does not just mean stormy seas – it also includes high contrast, and Page was at pains to underline those also, both on an immediate level (sudden juxtapositions of dynamic) and on the structural (contrast between musical subjects).
Lovely to hear the Andante as a proper Andante that moved – and how it worked, as did the repetition of the theme at a dynamic that must have approached ppp. Proof positive, too, that the label Menuetto can be decidedly misleading – the darkly slinky, syncopated opening reflected in accented anacruses of the Trio. As to the Finale, there was no let-up in emotion – this was no opera buffa offering of light. Instead, we were gifted with a Presto whose taut syncopations carried their own nervous energy. Fabulous piece and a commensurably fabulous performance.