Superb Wigmore Hall concert – educational and viscerally exciting – celebrates 25 years of The Mozartists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart’s Czech Mates – Vanhal, Gluck, Mozart, Mysliveček, G. A. Benda, Kozeluch: Chiara Skerath (soprano), The Mozartists / Ian Page (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 26.9.2022. (CC)

Claudia Skerath, Ian Page and The Mozartists previously at the Wigmore Hall

Vanhal – Symphony in G minor, Bryan g2 (between 1765 and 1767)
GluckLa clemenza di Tito (1752) – ‘Se mai senti spirarti sul volto’
Mozart – Concert Aria, Bella mia fiamma …. Resta, o cara, K.528 (1787)
MyslivečekLa clemenza di Tito (1772) – ‘Se main senti spirarti sul volto’
A. Benda – Scene from Medea (1775, performed in English)
Kozeluch – Symphony in G minor, Op.22/3, PosK I:5 (published 1787)

Celebrating their 25th anniversary (not quite in the fashion they had hoped thanks to Covid), The Mozartists presented this fascinating programme. As Page says, ‘Prague and its inhabitants held a special place in Mozart’s heart, and many of the leading composers of his day were of Czech extraction’. Page also points to the strong music education in Bohemia at that time, and links it to music education today, reminding us that ‘none of the performers on stage this evening would have become musicians without having being triggered by specific musical experiences during their childhood, and one of our primary aims as a company is to provide similar experiences for future generations’.

Wonderful to see Chiara Skerath back with The Mozartists – she is one of the finest young sopranos in this repertoire around at the moment. But first, a symphony by Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813), This is the second of Vanhal’s G minor symphonies in Paul Bryan’s catalogue. The G minor key certainly imparts a sense of withheld drama to the opening. Page’s performance was beautifully pointed, Steve Devine’s harpsichord extreme stage left next to the double bass. A special mention perhaps for first horn Ursula Paludan Monberg, who seems to be able to pick those high notes from nowhere. The second movement, an Adagio, rightly moved nicely. This is effectively the slow movement of an oboe concerto, melodic and graceful, and well played by James Eastaway. Interesting how the third movement, a Menuetto and Trio, manifests as the outgoing equivalent of the very opening of the first movement. Page’s tempo was perfect; interestingly, the Trio is once more oboe-dominated, and the moment when oboe and strings join together is just pure magic. The performance of the finale was the crowning joy of the performance, with its coiled spring of an opening. Small wonder Vanhal was one of the most respected symphonists of the eighteenth century.

It is typical of the adventurous spirit of The Mozartists that we have two La clemenza di Titos, neither by Mozart. Two settings of the same text, incidentally (not set by Mozart in his opera), Sesto’s aria ‘Se mai senti spirarti sul volto’ (‘If ever you feel breathing on your face’). Gluck’s opera was premiered in Naples in 1752, some four years before Mozart was born. The text speaks of feeling the sighs of the beloved in the breeze and how that allays the sufferings of the beloved. This is Sesto’s farewell to Vitellia, lachrymose and ineffably beautiful.

Skerath’s voice remains one of the most purely beautiful sopranos imaginable, and how she conveyed the sadness so well. Her voice was positively rapture-inducing; on a technical level, the large leaps Gluck writes within one cantabile line were managed impeccably. Skerath ornamented the A1 section of the aria, injecting some appoggiaturas that went straight to the heart. And finally, before the interval, one of Mozart’s cruelly under-performed concert arias, Bella mia fiamma, written for the soprano Josepha Duschek. Here we have the character Titano, another person in torment, another farewell. In Mozart’s hands there is a natural elevation of tone; what was notable about Page’s performance was how he brought out the invention and even the modernity of the writing, particularly in the lines of the opening. The aria itself is interesting as Titano addresses four different characters: perhaps it was the repeated entreaties of ‘Resta, o cara’ (‘Stay, my dearest’) that were most touching here. Pure beauty from all.

If anything, the second half was more impressive, partially because of the inspired programming. Ian Page has on several occasions kept the flame of Josef Myliveček alive. Some audience members might have known Mysliveček’s setting of ‘Se mai senti spirarti sul volto’ from Magdalena Kožená’s DG disc, Le Belle Immagini. Mozart included, this was the most heavenly music on the programme, the oboe/bassoon opening beautifully managed (thereafter the bassoon retains its function of mezzo-staccato accompaniment figure, with the oboe connecting the vocal phrases to the vocal line). Mysliveček’s setting of Clemenza sits midway between Gluck’s and Mozart’s. The two parts of the aria are very clearly distinct. This is inspired music of the highest beauty – when the A1 section appears and the oboe and bassoon once more duet, it really is like being transported to the Elysian Fields. Superb wind playing here from Eastaway and bassoonist Zoe Shelvin; and the most liquid of legatos from Skerath.

Not many in the audience, I am sure, could have come prepared for the scene from Georg Anton Benda’s melodrama, Medea. The whole is a remarkable, 50 minute-plus work. Melodrama (speech and music) is best known through Beethoven’s Fidelio (the Dungeon Scene) and Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. Here is a setting by the only composer in this particular programme that Mozart never met, Georg Anton (Jiří Antonín) Benda. We do know that Mozart attended a performance of Medea in Mannheim in 1778, and this piece, along with Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos, impressed him greatly (there are passages of melodrama in Zaide). The piece is of course based on Euripides and concentrates on Medea’s revenge on Jason. Really this should be performed in the vernacular for maximal effect, and so it was here. It is fair to say Skerath (whose English is excellent) gave it her all, with Page the most attentive of partners (the whole thing is like a highly extended passage of spoken recitative). The sense of pride in Medea’s character projected by Skerath was fearsome in itself; plus there was a spine-tingling invocation of Hecate (remember Shakespeare’s witches? – not to mention a significant presence in current Paganist praxis). Skerath acted out the stabbing, and it worked because of her sheer immersion in the role. Simply stunning.

My own personal introduction to Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818) was via the Sinfonia concertante for the unlikely combination of trumpet, piano, mandolin and double bass on an old Erato LP: a delightful piece. It is difficult to imagine a performance of the music here, the G minor Symphony, that could do Kozeluch more favours than Page’s – the first movement (of three) nervy, full of energy, the central Adagio replete with rich textures an absolute dream, dissonances from the pair of oboes speaking straight to the heart, the finale a proper Presto, scampering urgently, its power enhanced through The Mozartists’ ultra-tight ensemble.

A superb concert: educational, certainly, but viscerally exciting too. Here’s to the next 25 years of The Mozartists!

Colin Clarke

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