Sturm und Drang #2: Ian Page and The Mozartists

Ian Page does like a long-term project.  Alongside Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project – which won’t reach a conclusion until 2041 – the conductor is in the process of completing a seven-volume recording series exploring the Sturm und Drang aesthetic that blew tempests and torments through late 18th-century Europe in search of emotional extremes which darkened and disturbed.

Volume 2 of the series features works composed between 1765 and 1770.  While there is a predominance of orchestral works in the disc’s programme – minor-key symphonies by Haydn, J.C. Bach and Vanhal – there are also some striking arias by Gluck, Haydn and Mysliceček.  They are sung by the young Swedish mezzo-soprano Ida Ränzlöv, an Associate Artist with Page’s Classical Opera, who has impressed in recent years, in performances at the Royal College (Faramondo, The Cunning Little Vixen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), with British Youth Opera, and most recently at Glyndebourne in 2018, where Ränzlöv, a Glyndebourne Jerwood Young Artist, sang the role of Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.

Here, Ränzlöv sings two arias from Paride ed Elena, the third of the ‘reform’ operas that Christoph Willibald Gluck composed in Vienna, in collaboration with the librettist Ranieri de Calzabigi.  The opera was premiered in November 1770 at the Vienna Burgtheater, with a stellar cast that included the most renowned soprano castrato Giuseppe Millico.  The action is concerned with Paris’s seduction of Helen, rather than with the political events surrounding and arising from the Trojan’s love for the wife of Menelaus of Sparta.  Indeed, Calzabigi’s rather weak drama is probably the reason that the opera did not achieve the success of its predecessors, Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste; for, obliged to provide a happy ending for this ‘feste’ opera which celebrated a state visit to Vienna by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, he removed elements that might have offended, such as Helen’s adultery (she is merely betrothed to Menelaus in the opera).  In his struggle, as he put it in the preface to the score, ‘ to find some variety of colour’, Gluck sought to emphasise ‘the different characters of the two nations, Phrygia and Sparta, by contrasting the rode and savage nature of the one with all that is delicate and soft in the other’.  Despite its succession of beautiful arias, Paris ed Elena was performed only twenty or so times in Vienna, then just once in Naples, in 1777, before slipping into the shadows.

Ränzlöv injects that diversity of colour sought by Gluck into Paris’s Act 1 aria, ‘O del mio dolce ardor’, in which, having just landed on the Spartan shore, the Trojan sings of his passion for the woman reputed to be the most beautiful in the world, and of his joy that he can at last breathe the same air that she breathes.  This is a poised performance but Ränzlöv doesn’t allow the simplicity and directness of the melodic line to preclude dramatic tension: the vocal line is beautifully shaped, without ornament, but one senses both Paris’s excitement and his impatience.  Vibrato is judicious and Ränzlöv allows her mezzo-soprano to swell – “alfin respiro” blooms graciously and the obbligato oboe warmly echoes her raptures – when Paris is consumed with images of his Helen’s beautiful face: “Ovunque il guardo io giro/le tue vaghe sembianze”.  At such moments, The Mozartists’ tense, quiet pulsations fall silent as Paris becomes lost in bliss.

When he finally meets Helen, in Act 2, Paris is disappointed by her feigned disinterest and hurt by her rebuff, though reassured that Venus is on his side.  Over firm, tense sustained chords – the twisting harmonies of which are well exploited by Page – Ränzlöv’s recitative conveys Paris’s confusion and anxiety as well as his resolution, decisively declaring his intent to put his hope and trust in Venus, and abandon himself to her: “onde in lei spero, e m’abbandono a lei.”  Her rich tone captures Paris’s fear and fortitude in ‘Le belle immagini’, and her mezzo has a winning brightness and energy at the top.  The strings play expressively and Page shapes the whole discerningly, holding back at the start to convey both Paris’s anxiety that the image of his beloved that he holds in his heart will dissolve and his nobility, and then subtly pressing forward as Paris’s determination and courage grow.

Joseph Haydn’s Stabat Mater is thought to have been first performed on Good Friday in 1767; scored for two oboes, strings, and organ (we don’t have the latter here), it was the first sacred work that Haydn composed while in the employ of the Esterházy court.  Choruses and arias alternate, many movements have a slow tempo and sombre minor keys predominate, including the G minor aria, ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’ (Let me truly weep), which is, fittingly, marked Lagrimoso.  I find the accompaniment a little heavy; the quavers in the bass line walk with a rather sturdy step.  An airier texture would bring forth the poignant instrumental conversations and diverse colours, and create a more meditative mood.  But, Page judges the tempo well and the decorative spirals and ascents have flowing momentum.  Again, Ränzlöv’s composure is impressive: the long legato phrases are even and assured, and trills are expressively employed.  Her strong upward striving and sustained tone through the avowals of desire to share Christ’s pain, “in planctu desidero”, convey the strength and sincerity of faith that Haydn expresses here.

Alongside these vocal items by Haydn and Gluck, Ränzlöv sings an aria from Josef Mysliveček’s opera Semiramide, which was first performed in Bergamo in 1766.  In his day, Mysliveček – who was born in Prague in 1737, the son of a prosperous miller – was one of the most celebrated opera composers in Italy, the country to which he travelled in 1763 to learning the art of opera composition.  He remained in Italy, writing operas – at least 26 – for Turin, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Milan, Padua and Rome, until his death in 1781.  When lodging in Bologna, he encountered a fourteen-year-old musical prodigy who was touring the country with his father.  Mysliveček became close friends with this young genius, one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; throughout his life, the latter expressed great admiration for Mysliveček’s music.  ‘Tu mi disprezzi’ comes from the first of Semiramide’s three acts, and expresses the rage of Princess Tamiri who has been publicly spurned by her suitor Scitalce (who, during the consort choosing ritual, had spotted his beloved Semiramide, disguised as the King of Assyria, among the assembled company).  Page whips up a fury, the horns adding extra vigour, and Ränslöv rages with razor-sharp clarity and richness of tone.  She conveys Tamiri’s haughty command in the B section, in which she challenges her other suitors to win her heart by avenging her humiliation – then storms through the da capo with fiery brightness, surging to a blazing peak with her final image of her cheeks reddened with shame: “Superbo il mio ressor.”

There are unfamiliar works among the symphonic items too.   Like Mysliveček, Johann Baptist Vanhal (1737-1813) was a Bohemian who spent some time studying his craft in Italy.  The two composers were also alike in, unusually for the eighteenth-century, eschewing a court position or private patronage and making their careers as successful, independent musicians.  His D minor symphony was probably composed in the late 1760s.  It’s inventive and technically accompanied, and The Mozartists’ dynamic and dramatic rendition suggests that it loses no ground in comparison with Haydn and Mozart, both of whom conducted performances of Vanhal’s works suggesting the regard in which he was held.  Dynamic contrasts are stirring, and there’s a real sense of pushing ever forward, particularly in the development section of the opening Allegro – making the sudden pause and brief switch to the major mode even more surprising and dramatic.  The Andante arioso is infinitely inventive, and the playing of The Mozartists noble, refined and characterful.  After the agitation and indignance of the Menuetto, briefly alleviated by the sweet woodwind melodies of the Trio, the Presto hurtles with vigour and vehemence to the finish line.

Haydn’s Symphony No.39 in G minor is similarly exhilarating and played with real panache by The Mozartists – one senses they are having tremendous fun.  The grace of the Andante, for strings alone,is complemented by those familiar Haydn-esque quirks, and Page relishes them.  The horns and oboes enjoy their duetting in the Trio of the Menuet.  The Finale is high-spirited and emotionally turbulent: the strings’ racing scales fairly rip jagged lines in the air.  If I had one ‘complaint’ it would be that while strings and horns are very forward, and the nasal oboes cut through, I can’t hear the two bassoons!

The disc is completed by J.C. Bach’s Symphony in G minor Op.6 No.6.  In the outer movements the sound is bright and bracing – fortified by the heft of the horns.  The long Andante is quite operatic in mood: the melodic material is memorable and engaging, and Page exploits the idiosyncratic phrase lengths and motifs, crafting a convincing whole.  The Allegro molto bristles with fury and the vigour conjured by the players’ spiky spiccatos, gritty accents and tenacious tremolandos, is terrifically exciting.

This disc will give much pleasure and confirms that within the Sturm und Drang style there is great diversity.  It’s a satisfying debut recording for Ränslöv and continues Page’s sterling work with The Mozartists and Classical Opera.

Claire Seymour

Ida Ränslöv (mezzo-soprano), The Mozartists, Ian Page (conductor)

Haydn – Symphony No.39 in G Minor Hob 1:39, Gluck – ‘O del mio dolce ardor’, ‘Tutto qui mi sorprende … Le belle immagine’ (Paride ed Elena), Vanhal – Symphony in G minor, Haydn – ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’ (Stabat mater), Mysliveček –‘Tu mi disprezzi ingrato’ (Semiramide, premiere recording),  J C. Bach – Symphony in G minor, Op.6 No.6

Signum Classics SIGCD636 [71:39] ($17.99)

Above: Ida Ränzlöv (Photo by Christopher Middleton)