In 2020 the musical world at large may be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, but ongoing sestercentennial celebration of the entire creative life of Mozart by The Mozartists continues its ineluctable progress by reaching 1770. That was an auspicious year in the 14-year-old’s already prodigious development, as it saw him make his first trip to Italy (begun in December 1769 and lasting until 1771) and premiere his first opera expressly written for that country.
Despite that year also seeing the composition of several symphonies, his first string quartet, and a clutch of concert arias, as well as a series of intricate contrapuntal exercises as part of his studies with the famed teacher in Bologna, Padre Martini, only two numbers in their original versions from that opera, Mitridate, were performed in this concert which stem from Mozart’s own pen. Horns featured prominently in both – rasping with amorous joy in the duet ‘Se viver non degg’io’ alongside the delectable blend of Samantha Clarke and Ida Ränzlöv’s voices, whilst the uncredited horn solo warmly accompanied Clarke’s lucid account of ‘Lungi da te’.
Other vocal extracts revealed the range of styles that were prevalent during the 1770s, in that period of the Rococo, at the end of the Baroque era and before the full-blown Classicism of the end of the 18th century. Ränzlöv was tender and passionate in the two sequences from Gluck’s Paride ed Elena – one of his seminal ‘reform’ operas that would irrevocably steer the development of the genre towards the more organically and dramatically unfolding entities which became the default after the supreme achievements of Mozart’s maturity. Ränzlöv’s well-mannered singing, if a touch effortful at some moments, suited these extracts – the first an arioso, the other a fuller-scale aria preceded by an accompanied recitative – from Gluck’s opera which really recounts the love story between Helen and Paris, rather than portending the cataclysmic war between the Greeks and Trojans except mildly in the foreboding minor key of the aria, performed ardently here.
The extracts from two Haydn operas (Lo speziale was revived in 1770) are more redolent of opera buffa, the dramatic situations here both comic and ironic, though ultimately expressed sincerely in Haydn’s irresistible music. Clarke despatched the two arias with sparkling, if not absolutely accurate, charm – alluringly so in the case of the first, anticipating the greatest of Mozart’s essays for the soprano voice; and more coquettishly for the second where, particularly with the change to a more jaunty meter and pace for its second section, it could be Despina singing. Ränzlöv was poised and stately in the aria from the prolific composer Jommelli’s Demofoonte, whilst she and Clarke again blended smoothly and sedately, riding melodically over the buoyant galant style accompaniment of the duet from J.C. Bach’s Italian oratorio Gioas.
Two Symphonies (both published in 1770) also demonstrated divergent trends, even in their apparently advanced minor key tonalities. It was J.C. Bach’s G-minor Symphony which more vividly evoked the wild, unsettled moods of the Strum und Drang, in Ian Page’s vigorous, brusque attack upon the composition, contrasting with Vanhal’s example in E-minor, given its comparative elegance (in its melancholy demeanour). The Mozartists clearly enjoyed the dramatic runs and scurrying figures of the latter’s finale, however, which suggested something overtly theatrical or programmatic such as a thunderstorm, rather than a proto-Romantic expression of an innate character or temperament. As has now become a habit on The Mozartists and Ian Page’s part, this astutely devised programme constituted a stimulating beginning to the new year, looking back to the musical scene 250 years ago.