Classical Opera, under its director Ian Page, has set itself an ambitious task: for the next twenty-seven years (!) it will be devoting a substantial part of each annual programme to the works composed by Mozart and his contemporaries 250 years previously. The aim is to “follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilization” via a chronological, “real-time” odyssey through the composer’s world. This opening concert offered a fascinating selection of very early Mozart, together with works by his near-contemporaries.
Mozart’s 1st Symphony, in E flat major K16, was written when he was just eight years old, and probably received its first performance at the Little Theatre, Haymarket, in February 1765. Although naturally slight when compared to his later works, it nevertheless proclaims itself as characteristic of the composer in its elegance and serenity. It needs a small, dedicated band to bring out its qualities, so it’s ideal for this group with its strong woodwind section and attention to rhythmic detail.
From Mozart’s first symphony to his earliest surviving concert aria; written in 1765 and influenced by the young composer’s experience of hearing some of the great singers of the time, including the famous castrato Giovanni Manzuoli, Va, dal furor portata is one of those ‘Angry Dad’ arias in which the tenor blusters “Why, you liddle…” in different ways. John Mark Ainsley had two of them on this occasion, as well as a trio in which he was again an intransigent paterfamilias. He’s brilliant at this sort of thing, of course – you don’t get to be the best Idomeneo (top angry Dad) without acquiring prowess in the expression of rage at furious tempi and with ornate decorations. The orchestra did its best to keep up.
The soprano Anna Devin gave a bright, confident performance of Gluck’s In mezzo a un mar crudele, from Telemaco – it’s the opera’s opening aria, introducing the sorceress Circe and full of dramatic, showy lines which Ms Devin executed with great panache. In complete contrast, Sarah Fox sang J.C. Bach’s Cara, la dolce fiamma, a very beautiful aria first performed by Manzuoli; if you know L’amero saro costate it’s very much in that vein, and it was sung with warm, mellifluous tone.
Ms Fox began the second half of the concert with what was probably the best known piece in the programme, Gluck’s Di questa cetra in seno. It’s from Il Parnaso confuso and is the perfect example of a concert aria, with its exquisite scoring centred around two violas and a bassoon; it’s a favourite of Cecilia Bartoli, unsurprisingly given its fluid, lilting vocal line. It was taken a little slowly for our taste here, but sung and played with the affection it deserves.
Ainsley’s second angry dad was Sacchini’s King Croesus, who rails against his ungrateful daughter in Barbara figlia ingrate – they liked their ‘songs of rage’ in this period, and this one is a fine example, with its driven, insistent feel. Anna Devin calmed the mood with Mozart’s Conservati fedele, and after a bustling, vibrant performance of Haydn’s Symphony no. 39, the concert ended with J.C. Bach’s trio Ah, genitore amato’ in which the two soprano characters beg the tenor to have pity on them. It’s surely not too far-fetched to hear the germ of the great quartet from Idomeneo in the trio here, and it’s moments like these which provide the justification – if any were needed – for so vast a survey of Mozart’s works.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.