This is the start of the fourth year of Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 series, in which it always presents works either written or performed exactly a quarter of a millennium earlier. This concert, conducted by the group’s Artistic Director Ian Page, included two symphonies, a concerto and excerpts from various operas. If not every work performed could be classed as a masterpiece, that is a natural product of the approach. The primary aim of such a concert is to highlight a cross-section of the quality output from 1768, not to suggest that every piece written that year was of the highest calibre. Nevertheless, the evening included plenty of gems that were a joy to discover, and it is always a pleasure to hear the likes of Jommelli, J. C. Bach, Hasse and Vanhal alongside their now more famous contemporaries Haydn and Mozart.
The evening began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 26 in D minor, ‘Lamentatione’, whose first and second movements are based on Gregorian chants associated with Holy Week. Upon hearing the piece, it became clear that much of the interest lies in seeing exactly how the composer incorporated them. In the case of the opening ‘Allegro assai con spirito’ the holding back of the plainsong quotation until the second subject allows for a driven opening. With the ‘Adagio’ Haydn could (as with the first movement) add a first violin counter -melody to accompany the plainsong theme that is played by the second violins and flute. The result is a symphony that seems to possess a level of gravitas and intensity seen in few others at the time.
Although not so well known today, Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774) wrote approximately eighty operas in his lifetime, and his reforms in the genre are sometimes regarded as equalling those of Gluck in importance. Certainly, the aria ‘Ombre che tacite qui sede’ from Fetonte, with its eerie, otherworldly music, revealed, in the context of what was being written around him, an exceptionally original mind. This was followed by J. C. Bach’s Flute Concerto in D major, in which soloist Katy Bircher clearly grasped the way in which the piece was expressly designed for flute and orchestra to work (and, on occasions, sound) as one. Nevertheless, when Bircher really was required to ‘lead’ she had the opportunity to show just how exquisite her playing of the four-keyed flute was.
The first half ended with two arias from Haydn’s Lo speziale, in which three suitors desire the same woman, Grilletta. The first ‘Amore nel mio petto’ is a fiery aria in G minor, in which the suitor Volpino vows revenge on his more successful rival. It is raised to another level, however, as his outward show of valour is contrasted with self-doubt as he asks ‘ma s’ammazzasseme?’ (but if he kills me?). The second aria ‘Salamelica, Semprugna cara’ sees Volpino disguise himself as a foreigner and, as a result, deliver deliberately appalling Italian. The libretto that Haydn had to work from only included one female role (Grilletta), and so he made Volpino a soprano (and the other two suitors tenors). Thus, these arias, like all of those across the evening, were sung by Chiara Skerath, who on her Wigmore Hall debut revealed an immensely intriguing voice. On the one hand, there was a rich vibrancy to her sound even as it was projected with crystal clarity. On the other, although her voice did not initially seem particularly large, it was the fact that everything was filled out so well within it that made it feel so rounded and effective.
The second half began with the Overture to Mozart’s first opera La finta semplice. Written in 1767, it was never performed in Vienna after the pre-eminent musicians there (largely being jealous of the 11-year old’s talents) put obstacle after obstacle in its way. This means that if it was ever performed in his lifetime it was in Salzburg in 1768. The Overture was a reworking of a recently completed Symphony in D major (K.45), and it was consequently interesting to see Mozart’s prowess in both symphonic and operatic writing, even at this young age. The aria from it that followed ‘Amoretti, che ascosi qui siete’ revealed a tender understanding of human nature.
It has been claimed that Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) was more famous internationally during his lifetime than Mozart ever was during his own (although far older, Hasse died only eight years earlier). His contribution to the proceedings came in the form of ‘Perderò l’amato bene’ from Piramo e Tisbe, an aria that seems to sit ‘halfway’ between the sound worlds of Handel and Mozart. The concert ended with a performance of the Symphony in D minor (d1) by Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813). This contrasted extremely driven and energetic outer movements with more serene and reflective inner ones. As an immensely accomplished piece, it provided a strong ending to a delightful evening of delving into all that 1768 had to offer.
Future performances in Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 series include Haydn’s Applausus cantata at Cadogan Hall on 15 March, and Mozart’s La finta semplice at Birmingham Town Hall on 2 June and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6 and 8 June. For full details of all of its recordings and forthcoming events visit the Classical Opera website.