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Boston Baroque: Adept Virtuosi

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Amanda Forsyth (file photo)

Music Director Martin Pearlman led the orchestra of period instruments in a welcome display of instrumental and vocal virtuosity Friday at Jordan Hall, where we found soprano soloist Amanda Forsythe at the top of her game in a group of dazzling arias. Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C Major, Linz and Haydn’s Symphony no. 102 in B-flat Major framed the program; it repeated on Sunday afternoon.

In 1781 Mozart moved to Vienna, determined to make his career there as a freelance pianist and composer. A year later he married Constanze Weber in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and in July 1783 the couple set out for Salzburg to introduce Constanze to Mozart’s father. On the way home they stopped at the provincial town of Linz, where Mozart composed a symphony for the private orchestra of the Counts Thun, father and son. Apparently, he finished it within six days, just in time for the premiere on November 4th. The Linz Symphony was Mozart’s first to begin with a slow Introduction. Like an opera overture, it casts a spell of mystery and harmonic suspense before the Allegro lands unabashedly on the tonic. The forceful opening measures proceed down by half-steps in the bass, ending on a seventh chord. In a sharply contrasting mood, chromatic pitches in the winds introduce a sense of tension-laden pathos, until harmonic clarity is established by a brief modulation to the dominant, ending with a crashing tutti chord. The main theme of the Allegro entered piano in the strings, followed by a brilliant fortissimo repetition and a strongly accented march in dotted rhythms over a busy running bass. A gentler, contemplative section with lovely passages for winds followed each of these energetic themes. In an unconventional touch, Mozart replaced the expected lyrical second theme in the dominant, G Major, with another march in E Minor. A wisp of a connecting passage in the violins led back to the repetition of the Allegro exposition, and also introduced the movement’s extended coda. Pearlman lovingly brought out the inner voices and contrasts of mood both in the Introduction and in the following Allegro. Intent on maintaining a brisk tempo, however, he might still have taken a more supple approach to phrasing and dynamics while preserving his ensemble’s characteristic bright sound and focused energy. Horns, trumpets, and timpani were usually omitted in the slow movements of 18th-century symphonies, but Mozart retained them in his gently rocking Andante, punctuating passages in the strings with emphatic tutti outbursts. Melting passages for winds in the development were followed in the reprise by graceful ornamentation in the violins. Brass and timpani brought a touch of festive, outdoor pomp to the Menuetto. Its Trio was slyly rustic, with oboes doubled first by violins, then by bassoons in a doodling motive reminiscent of bagpipes. Pearlman gave the movement its proper weight by taking all the indicated repeats, including in the Da capo return of the Menuetto after the Trio. The whirlwind Presto, which Mozart directed to be played “as fast as possible,” got off to a slightly fuzzy start but soon regained its footing. Strong dynamic contrasts and a fugato theme explored in many guises made for a rousing conclusion.

Il re pastore (The Shepherd King), K. 208, was commissioned from the 19-year-old Mozart for a visit by the Archduke Maximilian Francis of Austria, the youngest son of Empress Maria Theresa, to Salzburg, and first performed on April 23, 1775 in the palace of the archbishop Count Hieronymus von Colloredo. Pietro Metastasio had based his libretto on the 1573 pastoral play by Torquato Tasso. Having deposed the tyrant of Sidon, King Alessandro of Macedonia believes the shepherd Aminta is the rightful heir. As such, however, he cannot marry the shepherdess Elisa. When a courtier prevents her from seeing her lover, she rails against him in angry tones. A consummate musician, Amanda Forsythe has matured both vocally and dramatically. Her high notes never shriek; her low notes maintain their bell-like clarity. Resplendent in an off-shoulder red dress complete with hoop skirt, she delivered this two-part aria with boundless energy, progressing from a declamatory opening, Andante, to an agile Allegro, to dizzying roulades in the Andante’s reprise. The ensemble’s top-notch players provided resonant obbligato accompaniment in oboes, bassoons, and horns.

In 1778, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II was in the process of setting up an opera company to perform German opera. At Salzburg in 1779 Mozart began work on a new comic opera to a German libretto by Johann Andreas Schachtner. After completing only two of the three acts, however, he abandoned his Singspiel to work on Idomeneo. The work was lost until seven years after his death, when Constanze Mozart found the remaining fragments among his scattered manuscripts. They were not published until 1838. The theme — the rescue of enslaved Westerners from Muslim courts — was one popular at the time, when Muslim pirates were preying on ships in the Mediterranean. The sultan’s slave, Zaide, has fallen in love with the slave Gomatz. She finds him sleeping, and lays her portrait on his lap. The opening Tempo di Menuetto grazioso, with muted violins, divided violas played pizzicato, and obbligato oboe and bassoon solos, brought a special sound palette to this tender cantabile that Forsythe exploited to the fullest, executing coloratura passages and cadential ornaments with utmost grace and expressivity.

Mozart composed the concert aria “Bella mia fiamma, addio” (My dearest love, farewell), K. 528, for the well-known Prague soprano, Josepha Duschek,  She and her husband held frequent musical gatherings at their home, the Villa Bertramka, and during her long career she gave concerts in Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Dresden, Weimar, Leipzig, Warsaw and Berlin. Mozart stayed with the Duscheks when he visited Prague in 1787 for the premiere of Don Giovanni on October 29th. Responding to a challenge from his hostess, he produced “Bella mia fiamma, addio” five days later, taking as his text a scene from a libretto the Neapolitan composer Niccoló Jommelli had set earlier. Proserpina’s mortal lover, Titano, has been condemned to die by her mother, Ceres. In an impassioned recitative and aria, he bewails his grief at losing his beloved forever. In its daunting vocal gymnastics, the piece reflects the power and endurance that were required of the most demanding roles sung by male castrati.. Beginning with a dramatic recitative, the singer depicts his anguish in short, syllabically declaimed phrases, interrupted by violent interjections from the strings. The aria that follows is no less dramatic, and plays out against a full panoply of obbligato instruments, with a single flute and pairs of oboes, bassoons, and horns in addition to the strings. At the words “Quest’ affano, questo passo è terribile per me” (This torment, this step is terrible to me) the singer launches into a jagged melodic line that demands a sure sense of intonation and interpretation. Forsythe was a match for every challenge, including swooping scales, wide-ranging arpeggios, and dizzying leaps.

Haydn’s first oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia (The Return of Tobias) was composed in 1775 and premiered on April 2nd at a concert of the Vienna Tonkünstler-Societät (Society of Musicians), a musician’s benevolent society. The combined orchestra, chorus, and soloists are reputed to have numbered more than 180 performers. Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, brother of the composer Luigi Boccherini, wrote the libretto, which is based on the book of Tobit from the Apocrypha. In contrast to Haydn’s later Creation and Seasons, the many bravura arias of Il ritorno tie it closely to the tradition of 18th-century opera seria. In the aria “Anna, m’ascolta” (Anna, listen to me), the archangel Raphael, disguised as the travelling companion of Tobias, assures Tobias’s mother Anna that her son will return safely and cure his father’s blindness. Here again Forsythe’s sure sense of style navigated smoothly conjunct melodic lines, far-flung arpeggios, and virtuosic flights with equal aplomb.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major, is the tenth of the twelve London symphonies written for the London impresario Johann Peter Salomon. He completed it in the summer of 1794 and premiered it at a benefit concert at the King’s Theater in May 1795. According to a story recounted in Martin Pearlman’s notes, during the premiere a heavy chandelier fell from the ceiling of the concert hall, but the audience had rushed the stage in their enthusiasm, and therefore escaped unharmed. The introductory Largo opened softly with a clarion call on a unison B-flat, before wandering into distant keys in a hush of suspense that Pearlman carried off thanks to careful pacing and dynamic control, The following Allegro brought a brilliant exploration of instrumental timbres and interplay of motives, surprising interjections of the “clarion call,” a false return in the wrong key, more excitement, and finally a full tutti return in which the crisp sound of wooden flutes, classical style, dominated the soundscape. In the second movement, Adagio, Haydn retained the horns, trumpets, and timpani, but in a later revision added mutes to both trumpets and timpani, producing a combination of velvety sonorities. Accompanying a simple melody in 3/4 time, sixteenth-note triplets enriched the rhythmic texture and at times even came to dominate it. Throughout the movement, Pearlman maintained an unflagging pace that kept its multiple strands in focus. The Menuetto was a rousing country dance with a strong downbeat. In the Trio, oboes and bassoons playing in octaves mimicked a village dance band. The rollicking Finale, full of about-turns, disjointed motives, and thwarted repetitions, made a fitting vehicle for Pearlman and his adept band of virtuosi.

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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