Gramophone guest blog

Bringing a lost concerto back to life

Clare HammondFri 29th March 2019

Pianist Clare Hammond describes the challenges of reviving Mysliveček’s lost keyboard concerto

‘Mysliveček’ - a name that is known to very few and one that most British people, at least, find tricky to pronounce. I first heard it seven years ago when working with Ana de la Vega who had recently performed his Flute Concerto. She told me of a keyboard concerto that had never been published and was languishing in manuscript form at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. I was intrigued and decided to investigate. 

I read of Mysliveček’s youth in Prague, success as an operatic and symphonic composer in Italy, and warm friendship with Mozart, who described him as ‘full of fire, spirit and life’. He was a valued mentor to Mozart, and the only composer mentioned with affection in his correspondence. Contemporary audiences also seem to have had trouble pronouncing Mysliveček’s name so he became known simply as ‘Il Boemo’ (The Bohemian). Despite professional success and an engaging personality, his scandalous private life gradually took centre stage, particularly after he contracted syphilis. While trying to pass his facial disfigurement off as the result of a carriage accident and botched operation, he was ostracised from respectable society. Even Mozart wrote that ‘everybody must fly from him and loathe him’. 

Some time after my first encounter with Mysliveček, the Bibliothèque Nationale sent me a scan of the autograph manuscript of his keyboard concertos. Mysliveček’s calligraphy is beautiful, yet smudged ink, torn corners and perplexing shorthand make it far from straightforward to decipher. What was immediately apparent, however, was the grace and vitality of this music. These concertos leap from the page with spirit and poise, and are perfectly in proportion. They conjure up the optimism of the Age of Enlightenment, of an era where reason and light prevail. I was determined to perform the concertos and set about making an edition.

Fast forward to 2016, when I toured the First Concerto in Poland, performing with Philharmonic Orchestras in Kalisz, Lublin and Jelenia Góra. We partnered it with Mozart’s Concerto in D minor, K466. The elegance and buoyancy of the Mysliveček was the perfect foil to the Sturm und Drang of the Mozart. It was around this time that I spent many hours at the British Library, poring over beautifully preserved first editions of solo works by Mysliveček. A series of one-movement ‘Divertimenti’ and two-movement ‘Lessons for the Harpsichord’, these are simple pieces written with the amateur market in mind. They are clear examples of the galant style, where simplicity and informality are virtues.

With one concerto under my belt, the other type-set, and this selection of charming solo pieces to hand, I proposed a recording to BIS who put me in touch with Nicholas McGegan and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Both are renowned exponents of music from this period so I was thrilled when we decided on March 2018 for the recording in Örebro. There was a great deal of work to do, both at the keyboard and in revising the edition. I was due to give birth to my second child in December and spent most of that month working from bed, laptop propped up on my belly, proof-reading and making parts. 

Three months later and I wrenched myself from my newborn, conquered ‘The Beast from the East’ (which brought Bristol Airport to a standstill, though Stockholm appeared strangely unaffected), and dragged my sodden suitcase to the doors of the Örebro Konserthus. The days that followed were some of the most enjoyable and invigorating of my career. Nicholas McGegan was a joy to work with and the SCO performed with such brio. When I listen to the disc now, it reminds me vividly of the warmth and dynamism of the sessions. Promoters still seem reluctant to programme Mysliveček, but I hope that as he becomes better known this will change. I, at least, am delighted to be an advocate for this captivating music.

'Mysliveček - Complete Music for Keyboard’ with Clare Hammond, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Nicholas McGegan is out on March 29, 2019 on BIS Records:

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