Mozart in London

The Mozartists, Ian Page
144:50 (2 CDs with a thick booklet in a cardboard sleeve)
Signum Classics SUGCD534
Music by Abel, T. Arne, Arnold, J. C. Bach, Bates, Duni, Mozart, Perez, Pescetti & Rush (including 11 premiere recordings)

It is hard to think of a more valuable or ambitious long term musical project than Ian Page and Classical Opera’s Mozart 250. At its heart, of course, is the plan to record all the composer’s operas over a period of 27 years, yet of arguably even greater importance is the parallel conception of placing Mozart’s compositional career within the chronological context of examining his music in relation to that of his contemporaries.

The present issue takes us back to the beginnings with the concert given at Milton Court in 2015 devoted to Mozart’s earliest significant period of compositional activity, the time spent by the Mozart family in London during his childhood in 1764-5. In addition to works by Mozart, it includes not only J. C. Bach, Abel and Arne, but also first recordings by composers of Italian opera working in London in addition to rarely heard English theatre music. It is a measure of the thought and scholarship that Page puts into the project that not only does the selection provide a snapshot of music in London in the mid-1760s, but that the works we hear are not just random choices but music that sheds a more direct light on the music that influenced Mozart and his own tastes. Thus the Abel symphony chosen is his op. 7/6 in E flat, a work justifiably copied by the boy (albeit substituting clarinets for oboes) and indeed until fairly recently known as Mozart’s ‘Symphony No 3, K 18’, while J. C. Bach’s heart-easing aria ‘Cara la dolce fiamma’ (from Adriano in Siria) was later embellished by Mozart with his own ornamentation.

Mozart’s indebtedness to Bach’s London-based son is well known, his assimilation of Bach’s bright liveliness and elegant, galant  Italianate lyricism clearly apparent in the three symphonies included, Nos. 1 in E flat (K 16), 4 in D (K 19) and the relatively recently discovered F-major Symphony (K 19a). But here too is already the love of interplay and imitation between parts that predict the future supreme contrapuntal master of the 1780s. Here as well, especially in the development of allegro movements, is the innate sense of drama that heralds the born man of the theatre, even more potently evident in ‘Va, dal furor portata’ K 21, set to a text by Metastasio. It is an astonishing achievement made the more so when we realise it was the child’s first aria, its dark poignancy stressed by the turn to minor in the second half of the main section. J. C. Bach’s dominance of the London Italian opera scene during this period is recognised by the inclusion of four of his seria  arias, particularly notably the accompanied recitative and aria ‘Ah, come/Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso’ from Adriano in Siria, first given at the King’s Theatre on 26 January 1765, which, as Page notes, was the day before Mozart’s ninth birthday. We don’t know if Mozart was given a birthday treat, but if he attended the premiere or a subsequent performance he will have noted the dramatic effect made by the accompagnato and contrast of the eloquent dignity of the succeeding aria. He would surely have equally been delighted by Bach’s concertante writing for oboes and horns.

English music is also featured, not only in the shape of two airs from Thomas Arne’s hugely successful English adaptation of Artaxerses  (an opera recorded complete by Page), the sole surviving attempt at an English adaptation of dramma per musica, but also two arias from his unknown oratorio Judith  (1765). The first is the beguiling ‘Sleep, gentle cherub’, a fine illustration of the composer’s melodic gifts. The lighter genre of English theatre music is represented by music by Arne and Samuel Arnold, along with such forgotten figures as George Rush and William Bates. If this unpretentious music sounds slight to our ears, it is worth recalling that in the 1760s many an Englishman greatly preferred it to the grander utterances of Italian seria.

The theatre pieces have very different demands to the challenges of seria  arias, being written for singing actors able to project them with character rather than virtuosity, requirements well met here by tenor Robert Murray and soprano Rebecca Bottone. The Italian opera extracts (and the Arne) are divided between no fewer than four different sopranos, mezzo Helen Sherman and tenor Ben Johnson, who is excellent in K 21, catching the rhetoric of the aria impressively. In keeping with Page’s admirable policy of encouraging young artists, all the women are promising singers who acquit themselves well within the confines of the technique today taught singers who engage with early music, singing passage work with assurance and (mostly) ornamenting tastefully. I was particularly impressed with Martene Grimson in cantabile arias by Pescetti from the pasticcio Ezio  (Kings Theatre, 1764) and the fine ‘Se non ti moro’ by the Neapolitan Davide Perez, a composer who remains too little known, from another pasticcio, Solimano  (King’s Theatre, 1765). Grimson sings both arias with great sensitivity, shaping the long melisma on the word ‘dubitiai’ (doubted) in the Pescetti quite exquisitely. Otherwise all the singers here lack the ability to control both volume and vocal quality in the upper register, especially where upward leaps are concerned. This is an all-too-depressingly common feature of early music singing, making unstylish ascents into the stratosphere at fermatas and cadences about as unwise as Icarus’ flight across the heavens. Nonetheless, as state-of-the-art singing this is about as good as it gets in all but exceptional cases. Page’s accompaniments are unerringly supportive, while his accounts of the orchestral pieces are as musical and as idiomatic as one has come to expect from one of today’s leading Mozartians, though I did wonder if the enchanting opening movement of K 16 might have been allowed to relax a little more. Given the length of the concert, the odd slips of string ensemble are entirely forgivable.

This is a long review, but given its musical and documentary importance I’m not inclined to apologise. It simply needs to be added that the set is further enhanced by Ian Page’s outstanding commentaries on each work and that the less than outstanding sound is of minimal consequence in the context of so much splendid music making.

Brian Robins

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