Each concert in the London Chamber Orchestra’s 2017/18 season will explore a different human emotion, and the focus for its first was jealousy, as the programme focused on Mozart and Salieri. It included a short interview at the start with Adam Gillen and Lucian Msamati who played the respective composers in the National Theatre’s 2016 production of Amadeus, which returns in the New Year. Msamati described how jealousy is an emotion we can all possess as there will always be someone ‘better’ than us, and how this meant he could bring his own experiences to bear when thinking of how to portray Salieri. Both actors, however, acknowledged that the play’s suggested relationship between the pair made for a good story but had little basis in fact. In this respect, the concert’s theme of jealousy pertained more to the myths surrounding the two, which started in Salieri’s own lifetime and were propelled by such works as Pushkin’s verse drama Mozart and Salieri of 1830 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s eponymous opera of 1897, than the reality.
It is not necessary to challenge Mozart’s status as one of the most naturally gifted geniuses of all time to suggest that Salieri was an immensely talented composer in his own right, and that a significant amount of his output was only a notch down on that of the younger composer’s. It also seems clear that Mozart learnt a lot from him, even if in building on Salieri’s ideas he took his own music to even greater heights. Such suggestions would certainly be supported by listening to Salieri’s Symphony in D (‘Il giorno onomastico’ or The Name Day) of 1775, which revealed the composer’s pivotal role in the development of Classical music as one could hear the influence of Haydn upon him, and of him upon Schubert.
The opening Allegro, quasi presto felt Haydn-esque as there was a joyous stridency to the movement, and the repetition of phrases revealed enormous contrasts in texture and weight. It also revealed beautiful writing for the flute and woodwind, as did the Larghetto that followed. This was quite astonishing as a sustained string line from the violas and cellos was accompanied by pizzicato double basses and a series of (mainly) four note motifs from the violins (which for the majority of the movement were played with an upward stroke). Schubert was later to become one of Salieri’s pupils (as were Beethoven and Liszt) and some of the violin patterns to be heard in his own work may well have been inspired by this. There was also a sense of sharp rhythmic accomplishment to the third movement, which arguably sounded closest in style to those to be found in Mozart’s symphonies, while the final movement possessed a shimmering elegance that brought the piece to a sprightly conclusion.
The work may not quite be a masterpiece to rank alongside the greatest symphonies of all time, and it certainly lacks the robustness of Beethoven’s symphonies where the brilliance can still shine through even if the performance itself is a little below par. Here, because so much of the intended effect is vested in the balance, textures and contrasts, a performance that failed to achieve these with the utmost precision would considerably undermine the overall experience. In the hands of the LCO under the baton of Christopher Warren-Green, however, there were no difficulties as its performance was astutely observed with there being no more than a momentary loss of focus in the final movement. Possibly because it is so rarely performed, but more likely because it is a highly accomplished and beautiful piece in its own right, the experience of hearing it performed to such a high standard made for twenty minutes of sheer bliss.
The concert’s second half featured Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K.626 of 1791, in the original Süssmayr completion of 1792. This immensely effective performance may have been aided by the relatively small size of Cadogan Hall, which ensured that all of the power was there when required. Nevertheless, it was very much the achievement of London Voices and the orchestra to produce a performance that maintained a sense of forward momentum, and yet found the space to explore the work’s disparate moods and feelings even as it maintained a coherent whole. The rendition seemed deeply spiritual, and in the final Communio it was striking how the vocal sound felt simultaneously rich and stark as the lines were strongly delineated. The four soloists, Ann De Renais, Alexandra Gibson, Richard Edgar-Wilson, Jimmy Holliday, all played their parts to the full, with the soprano of De Renais standing out in particular.
For full details of its 2017/18 season visit the London Chamber Orchestra website.
The London Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of Salieri’s Symphony in D (‘Il giorno onomastico’), conducted by Zoltán Peskó, is available on the Warner Classics label.