‘Mozart and the Munich Hofkapelle’: an enlightening evening

To the Munich Residenz’s Rococo Cuvilliés-Theater, once simply the Residenztheater, for a fascinating concert entitled ‘Mozart and the Munich Hofkapelle’. It was here, on 29 January 1781, that Idomeneo received its first performance; this programme encircled without including that wonder of the operatic world.

First, we heard a quintet for two flutes, violin, from Johann Christian Cannabich, since 1774 leader of the celebrated Mannheim orchestra, and who had moved to Munich in 1778 shortly after his prince, the Elector Palatine Charles Theodore, succeeded as Elector and Duke of Bavaria. Violinist, composer, and Kapellmeister, Cannabich conducted that Idomeneo premiere. His quintet, given a warm, cultivated, even Mozartian performance by members of the Bavarian State Orchestra, the Hofkapelle’s post-Wittelsbach incarnation, proved to be a typically pleasant galant work, if a little short-breathed and regular at times for those of us with ears accustomed to Mozart and Haydn. The first two movements proceeded as one would expect and never outstayed their welcome; the third, one of those strangely lengthy minuet final movements, might, again at least for modern ears, have benefited from an editor. But then, Cannabich was not writing for twenty-first-century ears and would never have imagined his chamber music being performed for an audience in such a setting the best part of 250 years on. The scoring inevitably had one hear the two flutes as soloists, with the violin, Cannabich’s own instrument, and viola as inner voices, often interestingly and always gratefully conceived. Benedikt Don Strohmeier provided here, as throughout, exemplary playing for the cello bass line.

Another work for Munich, Mozart’s own Oboe Quartet, followed. Flautists Vera Becker-Öttl and Edoardo Silvi were replaced with the equally mellifluous Heike Steinbrecher, today’s incarnation of Friedrich Ramm, whose playing so impressed Mozart and inspired him to stretch the instrument’s (newly acquired) range to its near limits.  This is a work of greater magnitude in every sense, treasured by oboists, string players, and of course audiences the world over. Here the oboist is at best first among equals, a chamber musician like the rest. Interest is dispersed throughout each part and, above all, in their harmonic and contrapuntal combination; that, moreover, was how it sounded here, in a performance that seemed to delight in the liberation afforded. It probably does not last much longer than Cannabich’s piece, yet seems to take in so much more, whilst also sounding over far too soon. All movements emphasised the proximity, indeed mutual fertilisation, of Mozart’s instrumental and operatic writing, the Adagio here a grave central aria, flanked by ensembles as full of character in every sense as their counterparts not only in Idomeneo but the operas to come.

The parts of Ilia and Elettra were first taken by Dorothea and Elisabeth Wendling respectively, sisters-in-law and two out of four Idomeneo participants from the Wendling family, also from Mannheim and whom the Mozarts had known there first. (Johann Baptist Wendling, Dorothea’s husband, was a flautist in the orchestra—and may therefore have played Cannabich’s quintet. He certainly played in Idomeneo.) Introduced by Cannabich to Elisabeth, ‘Lisl’, née Sarselli, Mozart seems to have been equally taken by her looks and her artistry. At any rate, he wrote the concert aria, : ‘Ma, che vi fece … Sperai vicino il lido,’ for her, here performed in one of two arrangements for instrumental ensemble by Rafaela Seywald, with soprano Jasmin Delfs the exemplary soprano soloist. Brilliantly supported by Munich musicians from a different vintage, Delfs showed herself fully in control of the technical and expressive requirements, turning them to thrilling ends. Listeners, as well as composers, would doubtless have had personal favourites then as now. If I found myself favouring Delfs’s cleanness of gleaming line over the more generous vibrato of Talia Or in Dorothea’s concert aria, ‘Misera, dove son … Ah, non son’ io che parlo’, hers was also an excellent performance of a nicely complementary piece, heading in different, sometimes surprising directions, and similarly conceived and nurtured in the Metastasian text and Mozart’s response.

For the final item on the programme, we looked to the following year, when Mozart had moved to Vienna and was learning if not quite a new craft, then one in which Haydn was so far unquestionably his superior. With the G major Quartet, KV 387, Mozart opened his celebrated set of six dedicated to Haydn—and over which he struggled, if not quite in Beethovenian style, then more so than was his custom (Romantic semi-myths of divine ease notwithstanding). Again, we heard cultivated playing, and there was much to admire and note, not least in the seriousness with which Mozart approached and eventually crowned his task. I did not always feel, though, that the players were inside the music as they had been earlier. There were a few cases of tentative openings and I struggled to discern the line in the finale. Perhaps that was my fault; it was a very hot evening and had naturally become more so as time in the theatre had progressed. This is also incredibly unsparing music, regularly performed by the world’s leading permanent quartets and perhaps lending itself to odious comparisons. I nonetheless wondered whether programming something else from 1780-1 might have proved more persuasive: an arrangement or two from Idomeneo, perhaps. No matter: there was more than enough to enjoy and by which to be enlightened for one evening.

Mark Berry

Mozart and the Munich Hofkapelle:

Johann Christian Cannabich: Quintet for two flutes, violin, viola, and cello in F major, op.7 no.1; Mozart: Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, in F major, KV 370/368b; Mozart, arr. Rafaela Seywald: Concert Arias: ‘Ma, che vi fece … Sperai vicino il lido,’ KV 368; ‘Misera, dove son … Ah, non son’ io che parlo,’ KV 369; Mozart: String Quartet no.14 in G major, KV 387.

Jasmin Delfs, Talia Or (sopranos), Vera Becker-Öttl, Edoardo Silvi (flutes), Heike Steinbrecher (oboe), Pascal Deuber, Stefan Böhning (horns), Matjaž Bogataj, Immanuel Drißner (violins), Adrian Mustea (viola), Benedikt Don Strohmeier (cello).

Cuvilliés-Theater, Munich; Wednesday 19th July 2023.