Friday, February 15, 2019

Young Mozart, Played With Style


Musica Angelica, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach

Mozart at the age of seven, artist unknown.
The musical world has seen few geniuses on the level of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In his short 35-year lifespan he wrote more than 600 works: operas, symphonies, sacred music, and chamber pieces, some of them the most profound, transcendent, and magical ever written. Musica Angelica, the Long Beach-based early music ensemble, presented a nice program of works from the composer’s early years on the second  Saturday in February at the Beverly O’Neill Theater.

I don’t know what you were doing when you were around eight years old, but Mozart was writing his Symphony No. 1 in E-flat K. 16. This is not one of those works “attributed to Mozart” that later turned out to be by someone else hoping to capitalize on his reputation; there is an autograph of it, in the young composer’s handwriting. Whether or not his notorious father had a hand in it is something else; young Wolfgang was a prodigy, not yet a master. It was composed, in any event, on a family trip to London around 1764. Supposedly he was forbidden to touch a piano, so to while away the time he wrote a symphony...

Cityscape of London in 1765,
by Sir William Davenant.
The work is a cut above the usual early Classical-era symphony. Its three movements are exceedingly well crafted, with more than a spark of originality in the misterioso opening and many signs of an individual mind at work. Musica Angelica’s music director, Martin Haselböck, in his introductory remarks made much of a horn phrase that duplicates the famous opening of the finale to Mozart’s final symphony, the “Jupiter.” Interesting, but I doubt whether that is noteworthy; those four notes show up elsewhere in Mozart’s oeuvre and that of other composers with no suggestion of premonition.

Musica Angelica’s personnel change from concert to concert. For this one, Haselböck assembled an appropriately small group—seven violins, and pairs each of violas, cellos, oboes, and horns, with a single string bass and bassoon. The size of ensemble, and the use of period instruments—including natural horns and Baroque oboes—made for a delicious sound, perfect for this music. Tempi were brisk, and the players—all of them early music specialists and some (concertmaster Ilia Korol, cellist Alexa Haynes-Pilon, and principal horn Todd Williams) virtuosos—phrased with a crisp delicacy that lightened textures and created clean, transparent counterpoint.

Ilia Korol.
Three of the works on this program were from the period 1774-75, by which time Mozart was a wily veteran of 18 or so. Among his prodigious output during this remarkable period, when he had returned to Salzburg somewhat abashed after unsuccessful trips to Paris and Germany in search of a job, are the five violin concertos, of which Nos. 3-5 are relatively well known and often performed. Concertmaster Korol, whose expressive face and body language are enjoyable features of his performances, instead played Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major, K. 211. I don’t know why it isn’t better known, as it is a real gem, fully the equal of its more renowned brethren, and Korol gave it an assured, stylish performance.

The castrato Venanzio Rauzzini—
portrait by Joseph Hutchinson.
The motet Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165/158a, with its familiar “Alleluia”, dates from a few years before, when the Mozart family was sojourning in Italy; Mozart wrote it for the castrato Rauzzini. Soprano Sherezade Panthaki’s voice is not what we usually hear in this piece, and took some getting used to. Her coloratura was not pristine, and she sang with a sort of perky personality that I found a tad jarring in this sacred work. The piece covers a wide vocal range, and she certainly has the notes, but something seemed off. This is a minority report, however; the audience loved her performance and gave her a standing ovation. I would have directed the acclaim toward the ensemble, which provided exemplary support.

Sherezade Panthaki.
After intermission, the concert aria Voi avete un cor fedele K. 217, from the same fertile period as the violin concerto, found her in more congenial territory. Her large, warm, beautiful voice soared over the vocal lines, and the coloratura, which didn’t zig and zag as much as in the motet, was nicely executed. Her expressivity found its outlet in this aria, designed to be inserted into an opera by Galuppi, and was absolutely delightful. Panthaki’s website indicates she is a Baroque specialist; however, I would love to hear her as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.

And by the time he got around to the Symphony No. 29 K. 201/186a during that same period, Mozart was in complete command of his gifts, and his genius was in full bloom. This symphony is arguably the earliest to display the glory of the mature Mozart, in his eloquent handling of the inner voices, the balanced proportions, and the individual character of the themes; the uniquely charming Andante is a highlight. The performance was a masterclass in how to perform the music of this period. 

Martin Haselböck.
Haselböck is renowned in his native Vienna as a Mozart specialist, and he showed that here, with an unerring sense of pace and a deft handling of every phrase. And although the group, which has performed in Southern California for 26 years but only recently became headquartered in Long Beach, calls itself Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, this concert showed that it and the music of the early Classical period, Mozart in particular, were made for each other. 


Resound Mozart, Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, Saturday, February 9, 7 p.m.
Images: Mozart: Getty Images; London: Getty Images; The Mozart family: Getty Images; Rauzzini: Getty Images; Ilia Korol: Lviv National Philharmonic; Sherezade Panthaki: artist website; Martin Haselböck: Meinrad Hofer.

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