Album Review: ‘Mozart in London’

A visit to 1760s London by Ian Page and The Mozartists
June 28, 2018 Last Updated: June 28, 2018

An illuminating glimpse at the music Mozart heard in London during his visit in 1764–65, the two-disc set “Mozart in London” from Ian Page and The Mozartists on Signum Classics is the fruits of their Mozart festival in London in 2015, held as part of their ongoing “Mozart 250″ celebrations.

The festival commemorated the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s London visit with programs of music written by the young composer during that time (his first symphonies and his first concert aria), alongside the music that he would have heard in London, notably by J.C. Bach and Thomas Arne but also by many others.

Now, I have to confess that I have a relatively limited appetite for Mozart’s early symphonies, amazing though they are as the work of an 8- or 9-year-old. But the advantage of this set is that besides Mozart’s three symphonies and one concert aria, there is a wealth of material by other composers, including 10 premiere recordings.

It is one thing to read how much the young Mozart was influenced by the music of J.C. Bach (who had been resident in London since 1762), but it is an entirely different thing to hear for one’s self. On this disc, we hear two arias from Bach’s “Adriano in Siria” (written for London in 1765), both of which startle one for the Mozartian cast of their vocal lines and their orchestration.

There are also two additional arias by J.C. Bach from earlier operas, which were re-used in his pasticcios, “Ezio” and “Berenice,” performed during the 1764–65 season. The pasticcios performed at the King’s Theatre also used in their creation an aria by the Venetian composer Giovanni Pescetti (almost certainly chosen by the leading man, the King’s Theatre castrato Giovanni Manzuoli, because it suited his voice), and another by the Neapolitan composer Davide Perez.

J.C. Bach wrote instrumental music, too, and here we have the sixth of his harpsichord concertos written for King George III and Queen Charlotte. Intended for private performance, these use just harpsichord and minimum strings. The concerto is charmingly imaginative, with the extra delight of a finale based on variations on “God Save the King.” It might not be canonic, but I did wonder what the piece might sound like with a forte piano, an early version of the piano, rather than harpsichord.

The major English composer of the time was Thomas Arne, and we hear him in three different modes: in the form of oratorio arias (two from his “Judith”), in operatic arias (two from his opera “Artaxerxes,” Italian in form but with an English libretto), and in a ballad duet (from his opera “The Guardian Outwitted.”) The latter is surprisingly sophisticated, and together the pieces give a strong indication of Arne’s range, and the very English cast of his melodic style, even when composing in the elaborate Italian opera-seria style of “Artaxerxes.”

There are further items from the English ballad-opera tradition with two arias from “The Maid of the Mill.” The first is based on a lively patter air by the Paris-based Italian composer Egidio Duni, while the rather perky air “Hist, hist! I Hear Mother Call” is by Samuel Arnold.

“The Capricious Lovers” featured music by George Rush, and here the three-movement overture survives; we hear that along with the aria “Thus Laugh’d at, Jilted, and Betrayed,” a rather lively country-dance-like number.

The final English opera represented is “Pharnaces,” which was an attempt to replicate the popularity of Arne’s “Artaxerxes.” William Bates’s music for “In This I Fear My Latest Breath” is not without interest.

The disc concludes with a symphony that for a long time was presumed to be by the young Mozart, because he had been so impressed when hearing it that he wrote out the score, and it is this that had survived. In fact, it is by Karl Friedrich Abel, who joined with J.C. Bach in 1764 to give an important series of concerts in London.

The recordings were made live at Milton Court, but you would hardly know it. Ian Page has assembled a very fine cast indeed, with the singers Ana Maria Labin, Helen Sherman, Rebecca Bottone, Ben Johnson, Eleanor Dennis, Anna Devin, Robert Murray, and Martene Grimson, and Steven Devine as the harpsichord soloist in J.C. Bach’s concerto.

As ever, Page draws lively and engaging performances from his orchestra, and the results certainly charm, while the programming ensures that there is much of interest as it illuminates musical life in 1760s London so wonderfully.

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.