Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation was a fitting
opener, presenting as it does both mysterious obscurity – what Charles
Burney described as ‘organised confusion’ – and the explosive brilliance of
the birth of Light. Here, sharply defined woodwind sparkled tantalisingly
within the sonic darkness; the slightly raw horn sound and the hard edge of
the timpani evoked an unruliness which was swept aside by the cleansing
power of the fortissimo C-major chord which heralds the blaze of the fire
of heaven – a truly divine musical moment. Bass-baritone’s Henry
Waddington’s ‘And in the beginning’ was coloured by quite liberal vibrato,
slightly at odds with the orchestral delicacy and reticence, and the
Classical Opera Chorus’s gentle sotto voce delivery of
‘And the spirit of God mov’d upon the face of the waters’, but
subsequently Waddington was a bolstering presence alongside tenor Stuart
Jackson (as Uriel).

Ian Page had clearly striven for continuity and links between these
first-part items. The programme explained – in a sort of musical Chinese
whispers – that Haydn’s librettist, Baron Gottfried van Swieten had been a
driving force behind Mozart’s interest in baroque music in his later life
and was in possession of an admirable library of scores from which Mozart
created re-orchestrations of several works including ‘Leidenschaften stilt
und weckt Musik’ from Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. Jonathan
Byers’ cello obbligato was the embodiment of Classical eloquence,
while soprano Anna Devin allied a sumptuous tone to a lean musical line.
The ensemble was not always ‘perfect’ – I wondered how much time the
performers had had to get used to the Hall and its acoustic – but there was
much to captivate. I’d have liked a few more consonants from Devin in the
first movement of Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate but there was
terrific rhythmic verve, aided by some sparky oboe playing.

The entry of the oboes also added greatly to the dignified gentility of the
March which precedes Idomeneo’s ‘Accogli, oh re del mar’, from Act 3 of
Mozart’s opera seria. The men of the chorus delivered a very
focused unison above the vibrant string pizzicato, and Jackson’s phrasing
was both earnest and flexible as his private feelings, in the words of
Mozart scholar Julian Rushton, are ‘subsumed within the collective, ritual
solution to the nation’s agony’.

The first half concluded with Beethoven’s Aria and Chorus, ‘Da stiegen die
Menschen an’s Licht’ from the composer’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, a work which Beethoven
himself never got to hear. Once again, beautiful oboe and bassoon solos
imbued the performance with real elegance; indeed, the woodwind rather
‘outshone’ the strings throughout the evening, though I think this may have
been because there had not been opportunity to really get the measure of
the acoustics of the Hall – filled with a hearty audience – during
rehearsal. With Claudia Huckle indisposed, Anna Devin stepped in at short
notice, and joined with the chorus to create compelling impetus and joy
through the gradual expansion of the sound-scape. The women of the chorus
sounded a little strident and rough-edged at times but this did not prevent
us going full-circle, with another ascent towards the light.

These musical items were interspersed with short poems, for, as Page
reminded us, ‘Words have a powerful effect on us and can play an important
part in influencing how we experience music’. Given that for the musical
items we had both original language texts and translations in the programme
booklet – which, with characteristic comprehensiveness and detail, informed
us of both the contextual history and musical detail of the works performed
– and English surtitles, it seemed a little odd not to include the poetry
texts in the programme; especially as the reader, Barbara Flynn, was
positioned on stage right and provided with neither a lectern nor ‘formal’
presentational folder. Thus, there was an air of casualness about the
poetry readings which certainly was not present for the musical elements of
the evening. Though there was a ‘thread’ of music connecting the poems by
Arthur O’Shaughnessy (Ode: ‘We are the music-makers’) and Peter Porter’s
‘Three Poems for Music’, I struggled to link in e. e. cummings’ ‘who knows
if the moon’s a balloon’ and Robert Frost’s ‘For Once, Then, Something’,
with its questions about what it means to see ourselves, as we ‘kneel’,
always ‘wrong to the light’, into a coherent ‘concept’. Given Page’s
eloquence elsewhere in the programme booklet, it would have been good to
have had some explication.

A swift reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony concluded proceedings. Page
certainly showed courage and conviction in pushing the tempi – which made
the determination of some audience members to applaud each movement even
more infuriating – and had a clear vision of the structure of the work. As
noted above, the ensemble balance was not always ideal – the woodwind and
brass ‘out-played’ the strings, and this was exacerbated by the division of
the double basses, who might have given a firmer foundation had they not
been separated and placed on both sides of the stage. But, Page found the
drama when it was needed, and his soloists – all seated on the conductor’s
left – did not let him down. Waddington, positioned far right (those seated
at the opposite end of the Hall might have felt ‘cut off’ from the ‘action’
when the solo voices entered), was communicative and sure, his ‘O Freunde,’
an appealing invitation. Natalya Romaniv, replacing the indisposed Miah
Persson, soared above all with poise, precision and power. Misgivings about
the female chorus withstanding, this was a warm, embracing performance – a
fitting tribute to music, culture and democracy – the qualities which
Classical Opera/The Mozartists embody.

Claire Seymour

Haydn – ‘The Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation,
Handel/Mozart – ‘Leidenschaften stillt und weckt Musik’ from Ode to St Cecilia, Mozart – Exsultate, jubilate (first
movement), March and Cavatina, ‘Accogli, oh re del mar’ fromIdomeneo, Beethoven – ‘Da stiegen die Menschen’ from Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, Beethoven – Symphony
No.9 in D minor

The Choir and Orchestra of The Mozartists: Ian Page (conductor), Barbara
Flynn (reader), Natalya Romanic (soprano), Anna Devin (soprano), Stuart
Jackson (tenor) Henry Waddington (bass-baritone).

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 9th October 2017.

image_description=Classical Opera, 20th anniversary concert at the Barbican Hall
product_title= Classical Opera, 20th anniversary concert at the Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Anna Devin

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega