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Recording

Mozart: Piano Concertos

K242, K315f, K365
Robert Levin & Ya-Fei Chuang fortepiano, Bojan Čičić violin, Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Laurence Cummings
60:48
AAM AAM043

Two reviews of the previous issue in this revived series appeared on EMR earlier in 2023, mine in July and that of my colleague D James Ross in October. Well, why not? It’s always interesting to read different reviews of the same concert or CD. On that occasion Ross was rather more enthusiastic than me about an issue that curiously included no music played on the piano (or of course in this case fortepiano). Both Ross and I provided an introduction to the resumption of a series that it seemed for some years was likely to remain incomplete, so I’ll simply refer interested readers to one (or both!) of those reviews.

There is no general shortage of fortepianos on the present CD, though there is a shortage of one such instrument in the case of K242 in F, which is the concerto for three pianos, but here played on a version for two, which Mozart himself later adopted as being more practical. The unusual combination of three concertante instruments  – at least in Salzburg, where it was written, if less so in Paris and Mannheim – is explained by it having been composed in 1776 for one of Mozart’s patrons, the Countess Lodron and her two young daughters, age 15 and 11. It conjures up a charming domestic scene, though the countess must have had a salon of substantial size to accommodate three pianos and an orchestra that includes oboes and horns. Not surprisingly most of the leading material is assigned to the first pianist but the demands made on the second are not far behind. Cast in the usual three movements, the most substantial expressively is the central Adagio, the poetic yearning of which suggests a later phase of Mozart’s life. The performance by Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, his wife, is also at its best in this movement, finding sensitivity not always apparent elsewhere, though the performance is as fluent and agile as always from this source. According to the beautifully produced hard-cover booklet the three-piano version will be included in a future issue, which is surely pushing completeness to the limit.

The only query surrounding the more familiar two-piano Concerto in E flat, K365/316a is a date of composition, which as with the greatest of Mozart’s concertante works, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E flat, K364/320d, is unknown.  Both belong to Mozart’s final years in Salzburg, c 1780, but no purpose for their composition is known and the autograph scores are lost. The performance by the Levins again has a  pleasingly natural flow, though the rondo finale opens with a somewhat graceless, clipped orchestral introduction and a speed that could with advantage have been steadier. But there is considerable wit and sparkle in the playing and the wit and touches of rubato from the soloists, not to mention the ever-present fascination of Levin’s renowned improvisatory embellishments stand the performances in good stead. Cumming’s somewhat four-square accompaniment here as throughout again reveal him as a less idiomatic Mozartian than was Christopher Hogwood in the earlier Florilegium issues.

The final work is a fragment from another concertante work, a Concerto for piano and violin in D, KAnh56 (315f), one of a number of works Mozart for one reason or another stopped working on. This one dates from 1778 and his stay in Mannheim on his return journey home from Paris. From a letter to his father we know it was intended for the violinist Ignaz Fränzl, leader of a new ‘academy’ there, but it breaks off after 120 bars, an extraordinary fact given that the work was planned on an unusually ambitious scale not only as to scoring, which includes horns, trumpets and timpani, but scale, the opening orchestral ritornello being of such imposing length and grandeur that it caused Einstein to consider Mozart’s inability to complete the work a major loss. The opening Allegro is given in a reconstruction by Robert Levin, but is disappointing in that the violin tone of Bojan Čičić, at least as recorded, sounds thin. Overall this is a fascinating issue that those collecting the series will want to obtain, but it doesn’t convince completely.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Mozart : Piano Concertos K107s K175 K336

Robert Levin, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings
62:33
AAM 042

The Academy of Ancient Music’s complete recordings of the Mozart piano concertos with Robert Levin is a project begun in 1994 under the direction of Christopher Hogwood and resumed in the 2020s, now under the direction of Laurence Cummings, in which the latest scholarship is combined with state-of-the-art period performance. For volume 10, we return to Mozart’s earliest essays in the genre, a movement from Nannerl’s Music Book reconstructed by Levin, the composer’s three concertos K107 based on J C Bach Sonatas and his first completely original Concerto K175 no 5. Famous for his quest for authenticity as a keyboard player specialising in the music of the 18th century, Levin’s flair for embellishment is given full rein here – I remember him explaining to me at a concert (only partly in jest) that he had the musical notes in front of him on his piano mainly so that he knew what to avoid in his embellished versions. The radical approach of this project is further manifest in the fact that no piano features in the making of the CD! In the extensive and lavishly presented programme notes, Cliff Eisen makes a very cogent case for the K175 concerto having been intended for performance on organ, and this imaginative piece flamboyantly scored by the young Mozart fresh from a visit to Mannheim for horns, trumpets, timpani, oboes, bassoon and strings works very well as an organ concerto. The solo instrument is the recently restored George England in Christ’s Chapel in Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, Dulwich, which offers a range of characteristic stops which bring this lovely music to life. If the geography of the chapel just occasionally takes the edge off the crispness of this performance compared to an account on fortepiano, the colour palette more than compensates. In similar vein for the G major fragment and the K107 concerti Levin very convincingly employs a harpsichord, a 2013 copy by Alan Gotto of an instrument of around 1770 by Johann Heinrich Silbermann of Strasbourg. It is interesting that having composed them in his teens in 1773, Mozart continued to perform these concertos on tour, clearly enjoying their freshness and originality. The influence of Mannheim and the revolutionary Stamitzes is never far from this music, while J C Bach’s sonatas provide a useful framework and springboard for the developing young composer. Levin and the AAM provide beautifully nuanced accounts, crisp and fresh but also thoughtful and profound. For a brief bonus track Levin returns to the organ for no 17 of Mozart’s K336 church sonatas, a set of effervescent works in which I have observed elsewhere Mozart’s originality found perhaps its most unfettered expression. With its rippling cadenza and its dynamic interaction between soloist and ensemble, it provides the perfect sign-off for this excellent CD.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Haydn No.14 – L’Impériale

Kammerorchester Basel, conducted by Giovanni Antonini
77:07
Alpha Classics 694

Giovanni Antonini’s Haydn cycle, with his own Il Giardino Armonico and the Kammerorchester Basel alternating, here turns its attention to three symphonies plus an alternative finale for No 53 in D. It is from the nickname for that symphony, a 19th-century acquisition, that the programme takes it theme. All three symphonies are celebratory in character, with trumpets and timpani to enhance the grandeur, though they were a later addition in the case of No 53. The earliest, No 33 in C, is a pre-Esterháza work and is indeed with its twin No 32 in C the first of Haydn’s symphonies to include trumpets and drums. It was composed during the short period Haydn was in the employment of Count Morzin (c 1759-60). Cast in four movements, it opens with a Vivace that brings some champagne-like sparkle and agility from the superb Basel strings, a tranquil Andante scored only for strings, a pompous Minuet that unlike many of Haydn’s remains firmly in the ballroom, and an Allegro finale full of quirky humour made much of by Antonini and his orchestra. Oddly only passing mention of the symphony is made in the otherwise informative notes, suggesting that perhaps its inclusion to make for the unusually long playing time was a late decision.

One of the ever-increasing problems with Antonini’s cycle for a reviewer is to find something new to say about performances that up to this point have been remarkably consistent, whichever orchestra he is directing. Both produce superb playing for him, with unflagging dynamic energy brought to outer movements, insightful sensitivity to slower ones, while the bucolic extroversion that characterises many of the minuets is consistently infectious. Perhaps question marks may arise over a fast tempo, such as the secondary idea in the opening Vivace of No 53. Perhaps a little more warmth might have been brought to the odd cantabile movement, though that is certainly not the case here where the Adagio assai of No 54 – the only true slow movement on the disc and one of the longest Haydn ever wrote – takes on a mesmerizingly nocturnal mood.

Symphonies 53 and 54 both belong to the Esterháza period. No 53, first performed in 1778, is – to put it inelegantly –something of a dog’s dinner of a work. In addition to the later trumpets and strings mentioned above, it also originally lacked the boldly imposing slow introduction. There are three different finales, though one is considered spurious. The one given here is a Presto dated 1777. It is believed by some Haydn scholars to have been composed originally for the fourth part of the marionette opera – which were extremely popular at Esterháza – Genovefens, although Robbins Landon is of the opinion that Haydn, responsible for all dramatic performances there, just assembled the music for it. It’s a movement that juxtaposes pomp with an extremely attractive and more lyrical secondary idea.

Those who have investigated this series will need no urging to obtain this latest addition, in which they will find three less familiar symphonies given in performances that happily maintain the extraordinarily high standard established from the first issue in the series. Otherwise, anyone starting here has a great deal of catching up to do!

Brian Robins

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Recording

Sturm und Drang 3

The Mozartists, conducted by Ian Page
72:59
Signum SIGCD759

This is the eagerly anticipated third volume in what is planned as a seven-disc series of so-called ‘Sturm und Drang’ (storm and stress) works. Applied to music, as previously noted, it’s a slippery concept that takes its origination from the literary genre of that name, a movement typified by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and driven by the expression of fierce, sometimes uncontrollable passions. A forerunner of 19th-century Romanticism, it is applied notably to literary works from the early 1770s until c.1790.

The most common usage of the term in music is to a group of stormy, dramatic symphonies composed by Haydn from the mid-1760s to around a decade later, the present ongoing series having to date featured three of them: No. 39 in G minor (1765) on vol 2; No 49 in F minor ‘La Passione’ (1768) on vol 1, and No 44 in E minor ‘Trauer’ (c.1771), which is included on the present CD. It’s a work Ian Page describes as the greatest of the composer’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, while I, throwing caution to the wind, would describe it as one of the greatest of all his symphonies. It will be noted that these works are in a minor key, one of the main characteristics of ‘Sturm und Drang’ compositions, and also that two of them pre-date the literary movement, making it difficult to tie them into any suggestion of a defined ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement. As Ian Page suggests in his general note on the topic included, another and more tenable explanation is that it is a reaction against the Rococo charm of the mid-century.

All four movements of the ‘Trauer’ symphony are outstanding, but it is arguably on the magnificent Adagio, placed as the third rather than second movement, that the symphony’s particular claim to exceptional quality lies. Employing muted strings throughout, it threads a path of utmost tranquillity disturbed only by momentary restlessness in the second half. It is supremely well played here with a sense of rapt beauty that further enhances it, as does the contrast with the fiercely uncompromising outer movements. By coincidence, the other symphony here also includes a remarkable slow movement with muted strings. This is the three-movement Symphony in G minor by the Bohemian composer Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818), the last of a group of three published in 1787. Kozeluch was well-established in Vienna by the time Mozart arrived there in 1781 and in 1785 founded his own publishing house in the city. The outer movements of the G minor Symphony are splendid examples of ‘Sturm und Drang’, typical of the angst, tension, buzzing tremolandi and angularity familiar from the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart (and J C Bach in vol 2) in that key. The central Adagio, however, is a sublime movement, with some particularly felicitous writing; the whole movement sounds as if it is an anticipation of Così fan tutte. The final orchestral work on the disc is Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue for strings, K 546, two movements composed some while apart, with the new, deeply, almost spiritual Adagio composed in 1788 prefacing a fiercely inexorable fugue orchestrated from an earlier fugue for two pianos. The work as a whole is a Janus-like composition with the Adagio anticipating Romantic expressivity, the Fugue looking firmly back over its shoulder to the Baroque. It is projected with great depth and body by the strings of The Mozartists.

Another special feature of the series is the inclusion of vocal, mainly operatic, extracts. Vol 1 is especially valuable in this respect, including first recordings of arias by badly neglected composers such as Jommelli and Traetta, in addition to Gluck, all splendidly sung by Chiara Skerath.

I don’t feel the vocal contribution here to be as strong, either as to content or performance. The US soprano Emily Pogorelc is typical of the current vogue for singers that essay a wide range of repertoire rather than specialise in earlier music. She has a significant continuous vibrato – listen for example to the lovely cavatina that bridges the two stretches of accompanied recitative in Paisiello’s scena for Adrane from Annibale in Torino (Turin, 1771) – and there is a distinct lack of control in the upper range, especially in coloratura. The voice itself has a lustrous quality that brings its rewards, but I feel these are more likely to be appreciated in a later repertoire. The other, and to my mind, superior, vocal excerpt comes from Anton Schweitzer’s Alceste (Weimar, 1773). The opera is notable for having a German libretto by no less celebrated a writer than Wieland, though the music is thoroughly Italianate. Alceste’s  ‘Er ist gekommen … Zwischen Angst’ opens the opera in full dramatic flood, as the queen awaits news of her husband Admetus’s impending death. Pogorelc captures the drama well, but again too much of her singing is blustery and lacking control.

Overall, however, this makes for another exceptionally satisfying addition to a series that is special not just for the thought and scholarship that goes into it, but Page’s direction of his fine players. It is throughout beautifully balanced and paced, while at the same time musically highly insightful.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Haydn – String Quartets op 33 / 1 – 3

Chiaroscuro Quartet
60:44
BIS 2588

Almost certainly the most quoted words on the six string quartets Haydn published in 1781 as opus 33 are those of the composer himself. Addressed to potential subscribers, he informed them that the quartets were written in ‘a new and special way, for I have not published any for ten years’, a reference to the set published as opus 20 (and incidentally recorded by the Chiaroscuro Quartet – see HERE for a review of the first three). Although there are indeed many things about op 33 that are innovative and special, Haydn’s publishing blurb should not, as it has often been, be taken too seriously since it was a standard advertising ploy by composers and publishers to attract attention to their latest offering.

For me, I think the most striking thing about opus 33 is the sense of quest and adventure, of a mature composer who has mastered a new and difficult medium and is prepared not only to exploit that mastery but have a bit of fun along the way. Take the order of movements, for example. In op 20 Haydn’s ‘slow’ movement is placed second  – its ‘proper’ place in established practice – in three of the quartets, while in op 33, it comes second in just two quartets. So Haydn is still experimenting, just as is also the case with deciding on either minuet or the rather faster scherzo. Then there is the humour, which with Haydn is never far away. The E-flat Quartet (No 2) was actually given the nickname ‘The Joke’ to mark the breath-taking piece of truly inspired wit that comes at the end of the work, when Haydn suddenly brings the hurtling thrust of the Presto finale to a halt to introduce four bars marked adagio. Pause. What will happen now? Well, a resumption of the Presto but now with pauses of a rest interpolated every few bars. Until the best part of the joke that is, the final six bars of the work, where the silence becomes a whole three bars long. Whether or not the oft-repeated quote attributed to Haydn is true – that he ended the work this way to catch out the ladies who always started talking before the end of a piece – is neither here nor there. It might perhaps be better to hope it isn’t true; in today’s humourless world, it would probably be enough to get Haydn cancelled. This final passage, which is in fact of course technically a coda, is incidentally beautifully handled by the Chiaroscuros.

Another moment to savour in these performances comes the third of the set, the C-major, which also carries a nickname, ‘The Bird’, for reasons that are obvious from the outset, where the frequent acciaccaturas or grace notes convey obvious suggestions of bird calls, as do other ornamental figures. In the development section of the opening Allegro moderato there is a marvellous passage in which Haydn introduces a crescendo with a clear bird call (that of a large bird?) followed by a decrescendo that leads to a few bars marked pp but without the suggestion of slowing the tempo. But here the Chiaroscuros do just that, creating for just a few bars an air of avian mystery and Hitchcockian menace. It’s a supremely effective moment and typical of the imaginative approach of the quartet, who are never afraid to apply judicious rubato or touches of portamento. This appropriate playfulness is one of the distinctive features of performances that constantly delight and impress by dint of superb playing that also shows off Haydn’s wonderful command of counterpoint.  This applies especially in the B-minor quartet (No 1), the most ‘learned’ of this group. Here one fully grasps the inspiration that op 33 gave to Mozart to put his own contrapuntal mastery to the test in the six quartets he dedicated to his friend. It’s worth noting that all essential repeats are taken by the Chiaroscuro, that’s to say all but those of the scherzo or minuet da capos.

I concluded my review of the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s opus 20 by expressing the hope they would record opus 33. It’s taken a while but here at least is the first instalment and well worth the wait it is.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Felice Giardini: 6 Sonatas for Flute & Harpsichord

ConSerto Musico
66:50
Brilliant Classics 95625

The delightfully named Felice Giardini has filled these sonatas for flute and continuo with the two aspects of his name, joy and gardens! Joyful in mood and making frequent reference to birdsong, these six pieces clearly demonstrate Giardini’s celebrated ability to inhabit the character of the instruments he was composing for. As a virtuoso violinist, Giardini spent much of his life on tour and specifically in the musical honeypot of 18th-century London, where he directed a number of important ensembles, while also finding time to compose and give solo concerts. ConSerto Musico employ both cello and bassoon to vary the texture of the continuo group, and this and a vivacious musicality help to bring this charming music vividly to life. Flautist Mario Foleno plays a copy by Martin Wenner of an original 18th-century flute by Carlo Palanco, which produces a rich and warm tone ideal for this sunlit repertoire. The CD concludes with a Minuet and Variations for keyboard by Giardini which allows harpsichordist Roberto Loreggian to step capably out from his continuo role to take his share of the spotlight.

D. James Ross

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Recording

G. B. Sammartini: Six Viennese Sonatas

Oinos Baroque Trio
62:53
Dynamic CDS7959

These six sonatas, recorded here for the first time, were collected from a variety of sources for use at the Viennese Hofkapelle. Compared to the violin music of his Italian contemporaries, this music by Sammartini is relatively technically undemanding, although it demonstrates a pleasantly lyrical character which makes it constantly engaging. The composer’s long life spans a period of rapid musical development from the Baroque to the Classical period, and his music embodies aspects of both these styles. The Oinos Baroque Trio provide us with persuasive premiere recordings of all six works, although occasionally I feel a little more passion in the playing might have brought the music more convincingly off the page. The fact that these sonatas found their way to Vienna is probably more due to the fact that Sammartini was working in Milan which was at the time under Habsburg rule than to any intention of the composer or any active decision by the musicians of the Viennese Hofkapelle, but that this music subsequently had an influence on the development of Classical music in Vienna is undeniable. This is particularly noticeable in the sonatas in which the Oinos Trio choose a fortepiano as continuo instrument.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Mozart: Double Concertos

Capella Savaria, conducted by Nicholas McGegan
72:20
Hungaroton HCD 32866

Founded in 1981, Capella Savaria is the oldest Hungarian period instrument ensemble and boasts an impressive back-catalogue of authentic accounts of Baroque and classical music mainly on the Hungaroton label and mainly under their chief conductor Nicholas McGegan. There are many period-instrument performances on CD of the famous Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart, and this account stands out for its freshness and musicality, the two soloists particularly moulding the music tastefully and allowing it to breathe. If the ensemble playing is not quite of the highest order, another attractive feature of this CD are the pairings, the unfamiliar Concertone K190/186E for two violins and orchestra and a fragment for violin, piano and orchestra K Anh. 56/315f reconstructed by Robert D Levin. The Concertone is a charming piece dating from Mozart’s Salzburg period, and at times it seems poised to involve the principal oboe and cello in a larger concertante ensemble. Of the Concerto for Violin and Piano the musicologist Alfred Einstein opined that it was ‘one of the greatest losses in art that Mozart did not complete this work’, and indeed from the opening passage and subsequent writing for the large orchestra and the versatile concertante duo it is clear that the composer had set his sights very high. Mozart composed the work in Mannheim, and although the famous court orchestra (the celebrated ‘army of generals’) had recently departed, clearly their impressive musical standards had permeated the local musical scene – Mozart was writing for what was technically an orchestra of amateurs. Although he customarily wrote well for the piano, the same cannot always be said of his writing for solo violin, but in this work he writes brilliantly for both. More than once we hear pre-echoes of Mendelssohn’s imaginative concerto for violin and piano, and we should be grateful for the reconstructive skills of Robert Levin, which have allowed us to enjoy this lovely movement – albeit while yearning for the movements Mozart never completed.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Saint-Georges: L’Amant anonyme

Haymarket Opera Company, conducted by Craig Trompeter
170:31 (3 CDs)
Cedille CDR 90000 217

The Afro-French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe, then a French colony, around 1745, the son of a local mother and a wealthy planter and nobleman. Little is known about his earlier life other than that he received an all-round education befitting his status. This included not only music but swordsmanship, at which he became one of the most noted exponents of his day. Again we know little of his musical training but he was a fine violinist, good enough to take over the directorship of Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs in 1773, three years later unsuccessfully attempting to become a leader of the Paris Opéra.

It is as an instrumental composer that  Saint-Georges is today best remembered, but he also composed four (and possibly more) opéras comiques, three of which were written for the Comédie Italienne and are now wholly or partly lost. The fourth was L’Amant Anonyme, here receiving its first recording. It differs from Saint-Georges’ other operas in that it was composed in 1780 for the private theatre of Madame de Montesson, the mistress (later wife) of the Duke of Orleans. Cast in two acts, it is a curiously hybrid work. The use of French, the spoken dialogue and the inclusion of ballets all point firmly to the kind of opéra comique developed by Philidor and Grétry. Yet musically the style is decidedly Italianate, as a couple of minutes spent with the quasi-Mozartian overture will reveal. Arias are in a variety of forms; it is interesting to find da capo arias termed ‘ariette’, following the pattern established in the tragedies lyriques of composers such as Rameau.

L’Amant Anonyme has a libretto drawn from a play of the same name by the prolific writer the Comtesse de Genlis. The simple plot involves the intrigues of Valcour, the anonymous lover of the title to win the love of the young widow Léontine, who he has loved in silence for four years but who has finally decided to ‘come out’. The only other characters are their confidants, respectively Ophémon and Dorothée (a non-singing role that the notes suggest may have been played by Madame de Montesson herself) and a young peasant couple, Jeannette and Colin, who are on the cusp of marriage. A certain faux-naiveté informs both the plot and much of the music.

The recording stems from the Haymarket Opera Company, which is based in Chicago and specialises in period productions; the pictures in Cedille’s splendidly produced booklet suggest spectacularly lavish costumes. The performance is pleasant enough but in truth lacking any real distinction. The potted biographies of the singers reveal that none are early music specialists – a curious anomaly for a company devoted to HIP – as is readily revealed by the amount of continuous vibrato on show. The best of them is the Léontine, Nicole Cabell, who does well by the score’s finest and most extended number, the act 2 ariette ‘Du tendre amour’, but is elsewhere apt to become shrill in her upper range. The French dialogue is spoken with varying degrees of success, but if you don’t want to hear it the third CD contains just the musical numbers.  

This a brave effort that deserves praise simply on the grounds that it is an ambitious project – even the music needed editing – executed honestly and with integrity. I’m not convinced that it reveals Saint-Georges to be more than a talented secondary composer and don’t think the note writer’s hyperbole helps his cause any more than the occasionally used lazy appendage, ‘the black Mozart’. Among other things he asks us to look on L’amant anonyme as some kind of trailblazer, remembering that in 1780 Mozart had yet to write any of his, quote, ‘major’ operas. True, but La finta giardiniera predates L’amant by five years and the comparison is invidious. Case dismissed.

Brian Robins

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Book

Dorothea Link: The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna

University of Illinois Press, 472 pp.
ISBN 9780252044649 (cloth) – £112:00; ISBN 9780252053658 (ebook) – £32.38 on Kindle.

The story of the Italian opera company formed in Vienna by the Emperor Joseph II might have remained an interesting byway in the history of opera but for one rather significant fact. It happened to be the birthplace of two of the three operas Mozart composed in collaboration with the court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, all three operas of course standing among the supreme achievements of the genre. Both Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte were commissions for Vienna, though the libretto of the latter only came to Mozart after Antonio Salieri, the court Kapellmeister, had declared it unworthy of being set. Don Giovanni was not a Viennese opera, having been composed for Prague in 1787, but it transferred to Vienna with a few changes the following year.

Josephine opera starts in 1783, two years after Mozart took up permanent residence in Vienna, and concludes when it was transformed in 1791, shortly after the emperor’s death the previous year. One of the remarkable aspects is that the company was run as a commercial enterprise by Joseph, who oversaw every aspect of its functioning – including the hiring (and firing) of the contracted singers, the majority of whom were Italian – over most of the course of the company’s existence. Only at the end of the period, when he was away fighting another of the endless wars with the Turks, did Joseph loosen his grip. Many of those contracted were among the leading singers of the day, a highly important asset since the success or otherwise of an opera most likely depended not so much on the composer or work but the singers, above all the prima donna (or leading lady).

It is this milieu that is thoroughly investigated in The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna by Dorothea Link, Emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia. As the name suggests her principal topic is the careers of the Italian singers that were engaged in Vienna; one of the most valuable sections of the book is an appendix in which the roles taken by the most significant of these singers not just in Vienna but in other major centres are charted. This in itself leads to some fascinating information that will not only be of great value to scholars but of interest to a more general readership. Who, for example, will not find questions coming to mind about the type of singer that created the well-known roles in Mozart’s Da Ponte operas when we discover the first Contessa in Figaro, Luisa Laschi was also the first Viennese Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Few today would think of casting a Zerlina as the Countess, at least not until she’d matured a bit. And who will argue with Link, having seen her argument that the role of Despina in Così is intended for a mezzo, not the soprano we generally hear? Link’s plan has been to treat each season as a separate chapter in which the comings and goings of contracted singers are recorded along with local reaction to them, leaning heavily on the formidable Count Karl Zinzendorf, a government officer and diarist, who attended virtually every opera, sometimes on multiple occasions. Zinzendorf was something of a ‘groupie’ follower of Nancy Storace, creator of the role of Susanna in Figaro, and the prima donna that dominates the earlier chapters (she was at the Burgtheater, the Viennese home of Italian opera, from 1783 to 1787. Incidentally, it is also fascinating to learn that had Figaro been premiered a few months earlier Storace would have sung the Countess, since the role of Susanna would have been sung by Storace’s co-prima-donna Celeste Coltellini had the latter not left for Naples earlier in the year. More food for thought, given that the high-spirited Storace is often thought of as the archetypal  Susanna.

The question of identifying the voice types that created the familiar roles in Mozart’s operas of this period is arguably the most valuable single topic in the book, since of course it plays a part in how we view these characters when we go to these operas today, not to mention how we identify with the manner in which in the role is played or produced. A good example is Francesco Benucci (c.1745-1824), the creator of Figaro and Guglielmo (Così),  and of Leporello in the Viennese Don Giovanni. Described as a buffo caricato, a complex vocal identification applied to baritones or basses, we know from the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (the first Don Basilio) that Mozart greatly admired Benucci’s singing, but it is extracts from several reviews quoted by Link that should set the Mozart enthusiast pondering: ‘Benucci combines unaffected, excellent acting with an exceptional round, full and beautiful voice… He has a rare habit that few Italians share: he never exaggerates.  Even when he brings his acting to the highest extremes, he maintains propriety and secure limits, which hold him back from absurd, vulgar comedy’. Another report speaks of his ‘inimitable polish and comic naturalness’ and his ability to convey, ‘the ridiculous with decorum in every, in every word, in every gesture, in every look, in every movement …’  These are words that should set modern directors, singers and audiences thinking about the way in which we play these – and other comic bass characters – today.

There is so much valuable detail of this kind in these pages that in that sense the book is self-recommending to anyone that would better understand the opera of the period, and not just in Vienna. Regrettably, for the general reader, the book is written in an academic style that makes it difficult to read and will likely restrict it to being a reference tool. Link’s prose lacks style, but above all she has a tendency to incorporate long lists of facts that would have been far better put into tabulated form, leaving her prose to flow more naturally. There are also a number of typographical errors and several instances of carelessness, such as that on p 312, where we are told a proposal to invite Francesco Bussoni, the creator of the role of Don Alfonso (Così) to sing ‘Haydn’s oratorio was rejected …’ Which Haydn oratorio is not identified (it was Il ritorno di Tobia).

Such caveats do not detract from the academic achievement of The Italian Opera Singers, which is considerable and laudable. The book is an important addition to our knowledge and understanding of opera in Mozart’s Vienna, not just the operas of Mozart himself, but of many other composers such as Salieri, with the focus very much on those that performed them.

Brian Robins