A - Z of Mozart Opera
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The concept of this eagerly-awaited recording is based on the fact that Mozart's first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus (written when he was eleven) begins with 'A' and his last, Die Zauberflote, with 'Z'. Taking this happy coincidence as its starting point, the disc presents a chronological tour through Mozart's operatic canon, featuring a highlight from fifteen of his operas. The repertoire ranges from the exquisite duet 'Natus cadit' from Apollo et Hyacinthus and a staggeringly virtuosic duet from Mitridate, re di Ponto to more famous highlights such as Don Giovanni's Serenade and Figaro's 'Se vuol ballare', and includes numerous unfamiliar treasures which deserve more recognition. By presenting the works chronologically, listeners are able to chart the progression from Mozart's dazzlingly prodigious childhood to the unsurpassed masterpieces of his maturity. The programme maintains a careful balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the comic and the serious and between solo arias and ensembles (including a quartet and three quintets). The Classical Opera Company is emerging as one of the United Kingdom's most exciting young musical organisations and has established an outstanding reputation for stimulating, imaginative and high-quality live performances. The CD features a superb line-up of eleven international singers accompanied by the Classical Opera Company's dynamic period-instrument orchestra
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Natus cadit (Apollo), Geme la tortorella (La finta giardiniera) and the beautiful Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben (Zaide). What a geat pity that Mozart never completed this last-mentioned opera. Grimson and Clayton's rendering of the duet Natus cadis is splendid, sung with feeling at just the right pace. Other recordings I have heard sing it far too fast. Remember: Mozart is the master of SLOW! Buy this CD; you will have no regrets!
Its first release in 2007 passed me by; it was clearly intended as a kind of pre-sampler for Classical Opera’s continuing series of Mozart operas. Its re-release and the plaudits it drew from “Gramophone” made me curious, especially as it was apparently show-casing the new generation of Mozart singers and I am nothing if not a canary-fancier. Many of the arias here will be unknown to the amateur Mozart lover and it is an attractive gimmick to present 15 of them in chronological order, conveniently spanning the gamut from “A” for “Apollo and Hyacinthus”, written even before Mozart was a teenager, to, of course, “Z” for ”Die Zauberflöte”. Much of this is indeed lovely music which will be new to the casual listener.
However, this is a disc to expose the fault line between two entrenched camps: those who have wholeheartedly embraced the supposedly “scholarly” approach to performing Mozart and those who cling to an older tradition – although the Historically Aware camp would claim that theirs is in fact the elder child. I am one of those who prefer not to take his medicine, so the moment I heard the whining, squeeze-box strings bulge and swell their vibrato-free way through Mozart’s melodic line in the opening track, I knew I was in for an aural struggle.
The performances here are decidedly intimate and small-scale; nothing wrong with that and hardly a new idea. The eleven singers are young and fresh, they are mostly hardly star-names but, again, who cares, as long as they sing well?
I grew up listening to a host of great Mozart singers like Schwarzkopf, Berganza, Baker, Ludwig, Te Kanawa, Cotrubas, Von Stade, della Casa, Burrows, Simoneau, Wunderlich, Waechter, Berry, Siepi, Frick and Lloyd – not to mention singers from a previous age who set standards which I cannot suddenly eradicate from my aural memory when listening to these pale and polite facsimiles of Mozart singing. Thus the moment I hear Allan Clayton’s small, throaty, androgynous tenor paired with the shrill, edgy soprano of Marlene Grimson in the lovely opening duet, I recoil. I am not much impressed by Rachel Bottone’s sinew-less Italian diction with its distorted vowels (as per the diphthong she introduces into “prego” in the second track) and her squeezing of notes; I am find little pleasure in soprano Anne Leese’s thin, windy tone; Andrew Staples’ tenor is of that nasal timbre with the cutting edge beloved of admirers of singers such as Peter Schreier.
Singers here whom I find more impressive include the pretty-voiced Klara Ek, whose vocal layout is reminiscent of Kathleen Battle and of course Susan Gritton, who even back in 2007 was already a singer of some fame and distinction, although she sounds a little cloudy here in “Ruhe sanft” and I would prefer to hear Te Kanawa or Sills sing that most sinuously elegant of arias. Mark Stone sings pleasantly with nary a hint of erotic charm compared with previous famous exponents and most impressive of all is the dark, elegant bass of Matthew Rose who sings Figaro’s aria with the requisite sense of barely-suppressed menace. The quintet from “Il re pastore” is decidedly proleptic of “Così” and sung in lively, attractive fashion, although the tenors’ tight tone obtrudes. The famous brief quintet from that latter opera passes by innocuously in a manner not likely to erase memories of better versions.
If my response sounds sour and grudging, I can only say that there is much very beautiful music here which will be new to many listeners – at which point I would suggest acquiring more distinguished recordings of that music.
This is another, legitimate way to play Mozart and was rapturously greeted in some quarters; clearly some like it very much but I do not and you will soon know if you do. It is a disc which reminds me why I could never be a professional critic even if I had the expertise; I would not be able to endorse the current performing orthodoxy.
[This review also posted on the MusicWeb International website]