Mozart in London
Ian Page and the Classical Opera Company (since rechristened The Mozartists for concerts) launched their epic project ‘Mozart 250’ with a weekend of events at Milton Court in February 2015. Aiming to be an ambitious 27 year survey charting the annual progress of Mozart’s musical genius in context alongside works by contemporaries, they started with the Mozart family’s 15 month visit to London in 1764 65 – a fertile period in the boy’s creative development during which he could have experienced plenty of diverse music in theatres, concert rooms, pleasure gardens and churches, and wrote his first symphonies and aria. Arriving only five years after Handel had died, music-making in the British capital city was thriving thanks to native talents such as Arne (and others), whereas imported Italian operas at the King’s Theatre featured music by Perez, Pescetti and most notably JC Bach – who was also pioneering public concert life in London in partnership with his compatriot CF Abel.
This double album is drawn from the copious amount of music recorded live across three days. There are excellent performances of some of the fledgling Mozart’s London pieces interspersed among an abundance of rarely investigated repertory that was researched and edited especially for the occasion; over a dozen of the pieces receive their premiere commercial recordings. Moreover, Page’s knack for choosing interesting singers yields contributions from eight highly capable soloists.
A limpid sleep scene and an agitated heroic showpiece from Arne’s oratorio Judith are sung with steely brilliance by Ana Maria Labin. Two airs from Arne’s Artaxerses (revived several times during the Mozarts’ visit) are performed with melodic intelligence and dramatic vivacity by Helen Sherman. Ben Johnson gives an authoritative account of the nine-year-old Mozart’s first aria, ‘Va, dal furor portata’ (K21), and displays impressive range and tenderness in JC Bach’s ‘Non so d’onde viene’. Originally sung in Naples by Anton Raaff (later Mozart’s first Idomeneo), this aria was rewritten for the London pasticcio Ezio (1764) – a motley entertainment that also featured Giovanni Battista Pescetti’s ‘Caro mio bene, addio’, sung in London by the castrato Manzuoli (who later appeared for Mozart in his Milanese opera Ascanio in Alba); there was a copy of this aria in the Mozarts’ library at home in Salzburg, and it is performed emotively by Martene Grimsom. From Bach’s Adriano in Siria (1765), Anna Devin masterfully portrays Emirena’s anxiety and pitiful plight in ‘Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso’, and Eleanor Dennis’s captivatingly sincere account of Farnaspe’s ‘Cara, la dolce fiamma’ (with telling use of woodwind and horns) tastefully incorporates some of Mozart’s own sets of embellishments written in Salzburg c1772 73. Rebecca Bottone and Robert Murray excel in several short operatic parodies from The Maid of the Mill (a pastiche based on Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela), Arne’s The Guardian Outwitted, George Rush’s The Capricious Lovers and William Bates’s Pharnaces, ranging from lighter-weight comic situations (the excessive ranting of the jilted lover Colin) to sentimental tragedy (a child imploring its mother to save it from death).
Nevertheless, the star of the show is the superb orchestra, which never sounds in the least bit perfunctory or formulaic. The contrasting moods and articulations between the fanfare theme and sustained woodwind-tinged textures are aptly characterised in the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No 1 in E flat (probably composed in August or September 1764). The final Presto of the Symphony No 4 in D, K19 (actually his second surviving symphony) has charismatic rollicking horns. Every contrapuntal detail of the string sections is delightful in the amiable Andante of the Symphony in F, K19a; rediscovered in Munich in 1981 but perhaps performed in one of Mozart’s public London concerts in early 1765, it signals a significant development of his compositional abilities. JC Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D (Op 1 No 6) is played with fantastic touch and élan by Steven Devine; his cantabile playing over pizzicato strings in the Andante leads into an entertaining treatment of ‘God save the King’ in the minuet finale (the 1763 publication was dedicated to Bach’s pupil Queen Charlotte). This fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable journey concludes with Abel’s Symphony in E flat, Op 7 No 6 (published 1764); it is easy to appreciate why this attractive music full of charming passages for oboes and bassoon was formerly attributed to Mozart, whose own manuscript transcription of it has been preserved. Fingers crossed that The Mozartists will produce several more revelatory commemorations over the coming years until 2041