MOZART 250: the year 1767

The music of the 11-year-old Mozart did not, however, dominate this
performance at the Wigmore Hall. For while the prodigious feats of the
musical wunderkind were certainly feted across Europe at this time – when
he was just 6 years old, Francis I of Vienna referred to him as ‘ein kleine
hexenmeister’ (a little master-wizard) – there was still some way to go
before the teenager would find his mature creative voice. The programme was
instead a smorgasbord of arias, secular and sacred, by composers both
renowned and relatively obscure, set alongside three of Mozart’s adolescent
offerings. The talented young singers who joined Page and his
period-instrument orchestra struggled to make something meaningful of the
multi-flavoured mix of miniatures.

There were some strong performances to admire, though, and some
little-known treasures to enjoy, not least the duetting of soprano Gemma
Summerfield and Emilia Benjamin’s viola da gamba in ‘Frena le belle
lagrime’ from Carl Friedrich Abel’s opera Sifari. This pasticcio,
on which Abel collaborated with Baldassare Galuppi and Johann Christian
Bach, was presented on 5 March 1767 at the King’s Theatre Haymarket as a
benefit performance for the celebrated castrato Tommaso Guarducci, with
Abel – a skilled viola da gamba and viol player – himself playing the solo
part. The text of the aria is taken from Metastasio’s L’eroe cinese.

Summerfield’s well-shaped line and variety of colour aptly conveyed the
protagonist’s attempt to resist the flood of ‘soft affections’ and the
‘throbs’ of love which the tears of the beholden inspire, and she varied
the vocal nuance to match Abel’s unusual modulations. Voice and viola da
gamba trilled consonantly at the close of the first section; perhaps more
elaborate vocal ornamentation would have enlivened later verses? Benjamin’s
preludes and solo commentaries were eloquent but frequently, even though
the strings were muted, the viola da gamba struggled to be heard. More
animation in the second section, which was accompanied by alert pizzicato,
might have generated greater dramatic interest.

Summerfield opened the evening’s vocal items with an aria by a composer
unfamiliar to me: Florian Leopold Gassmann. Appointed to succeed Gluck as
ballet composer in Vienna in 1763, and the teacher of Salieri, Gassmann was
principally admired – by such 18th-century musicians as Burney, Gerber and
Mozart – for his comic operas, which received performances in places as far
apart as Naples, Lisbon, Vienna and Copenhagen. Amore e Psiche,
which was first performed on 5 October 1767 to celebrate the
ill-fated marriage of Archduchess Maria Josepha to King Ferdinand of
Naples, reflects the influence of Gluck’s operatic ‘reforms’ of the early
1760s. ‘Bella in un vago viso’ – in which Zephyrus tries to reassure
Apollo, who is alarmed by the disappearance of the weeping bride-to-be
Psyche, with the dubious argument that women are prettier when they cry
than when they smile – has a full complement of woodwind, and Page made
much of the appealing interplay between voice and accompaniment.
Summerfield again crafted a warm, fluid line, but she seemed a little
hesitant at times and ‘pick-ups’ and tempi did not always feel settled and

Bass-baritone Ashley Riches joined Summerfield after the interval for
Mozart’s cantata, Grabmusik, which is reported to have been
composed when the young prodigy, suspected of putting his name to works
penned by his father, was shut away by the Prince of Salzburg with just
some manuscript paper for company and told to prove his compositional
prowess. The resulting work is believed to be this cantata, which was first
performed in Salzburg Cathedral on 7 April 1767. It takes the form of an
earnest dialogue between a departed Soul, which feels guilt for Christ’s
death, and an Angel who offers absolution. Riches’ recitative was anguished
and expressive; he handled the difficult coloratura with assurance,
snarling at the bitterness of death, and his first aria was as fiery as a
revenge aria – running through roulades, plummeting thunderously. The
flexibility of the line was fore-grounded by some lucid string playing.
Summerfield’s consolatory air – originally intended to be sung by a boy –
was characteristically eloquent, imbued with gravity. The pair blended well
in their duet, Riches accepting the Angel’s instruction with a gentleness
of tone which conveyed resigned content.

Riches’ solo aria was ‘Sopra quel capo indegno’ from J.C. Bach’s Carattaco, the fourth of the five operas that he wrote for London
and which was heard at the King’s Theatre shortly before Sifari.
In this aria Teomanzio rages against the perfidious Queen Cartismandua,
whose deceit has led to the Britons’ defeat at the hands of the Romans.
Riches, impressively ‘off score’, was grandoliquent without straying into

Haydn’s Stabat Mater was one of the first sacred works that he composed in
his new position as Kapellmeister of the Esterh·zy court; Riches and tenor
Stuart Jackson presented two of its movements. The orchestral drama of
‘Flammis orci ne succendar’ vividly conjured the flames of hell and
showcased Riches’ extensive registral range; ‘Vidit suum’, by contrast,
allowed us to enjoy the sweet softness of Jackson’s voice, his phrases
being poignantly echoed by the strings. In contrast, it was a dry tremolando that set the scene for the urgent recitative which
precedes Gluck’s ‘No, crudel; non posso vivere’, in which Admeto laments
the self-sacrifice Alceste has made in order to save his life. Jackson was
precise but his tone was somewhat unvarying, and at times the projection
seemed forced.

In the two orchestral works presented the instrumental playing was robust
and dynamic, though occasionally rough-edged. Arne’s three-movement first
symphony was rhythmically lithe and energised by the strings’ impressive
bustling and swirling. After some insecure intonation at the start of the
opening Allegro, Mozart’s Symphony No.6 settled into a charming, colourful
Andante whose lyrical nature signaled its origins: it is an adaptation of a
duet from Mozart’s first opera Apollo and Hyacinthus (1766),
‘Natus cadit’, which Summerfield and Jackson performed with grace and
fluency to provide an unusually gentle close to the programme.

More substantial Mozart juvenilia will follow later this year. Classical
Opera will present two of Mozart’s works from 1767 at St John’s Smith
Square: a new production of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots
which they


in 2013, and a fully staged Apollo and Hyacinthus alongside a staging of the Grabmusik. In addition, the company
will return to the Wigmore Hall to perform Mozart’s first four keyboard
concertos – composed between April and June 1767 – with South African
fortepianist Kristina Bezuisdenhout. A new recording with Sophie Bevan, Perfido!, featuring concert arias by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven
will also be released in May.

Claire Seymour

Classical Opera: Ian Page – conductor, Gemma Summerfield – soprano, Stuart
Jackson – tenor, Ashley Riches – bass-baritone.

Mozart: Symphony No.6 in F major K43; Gassmann: ‘Bella in un vago viso’
(from Amore e Psiche); Gluck ‘No, crudel, non posso vivere’ (fromAlceste); J.C. Bach: ‘Sopra quell capo indegno’ (from Carattaco); Abel: ‘Frena le belle lagrime’ (from Sifari);
Mozart: Grabmusik K42; Haydn: No.6 Vidit suum, No.11 Flammis orci (from Stabat Mater HXXbis; Arne: Symphony No.1 in C major; Mozart:
‘Natus cadit atque Deus’ (from Apollo et Hyacinthus K38)

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 17th January 2016.

image_description=Classical Opera Company: MOZART 250
product_title= Classical Opera Company: MOZART 250
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product_id=Above: Ian Page

Photo credit: Ben Ealovega