Sunday 8 March 2020
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Overture: “Don Giovanni” K. 527
Last November we left Mozart in Linz tossing off his 36th symphony in a mere four days. Much of the rest of his life was spent in Vienna; but Vienna was fickle and it was Prague that championed him most faithfully. In 1785 the celebrated Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte adapted Beaumarchais’ subversive drama, The Marriage of Figaro, which was first performed in Vienna in May 1786, to rapturous applause; but it was when Mozart trav-elled to Prague and attended a performance in January 1787 that his triumph was com-plete. The impresario Bondini immediately commissioned a new opera to be performed in the autumn. Da Ponte dropped two other commissions to work on what has become universally known as Don Giovanni.
That was not the opera’s original title. Early billboards survive and consistently an-nounce the opera as “Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni” (“The rake punished, or Don Giovanni”). Nor was this an accident. Da Ponte described his libretto and the opera as “dramma giocoso”, which may be loosely translated as “a serious drama with jokes”. In Don Giovanni there is a constant and ambiguous interplay between tragedy and com-edy. A perfect example of this is Leporello’s catalogue aria during which he shows Don-na Elvira the list of his master’s conquests – “Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre” - which he (and we) find superficially light-hearted and funny, but which for Donna Elvira is dev-astating in revealing the true character of the man she loves. The full title may also hold the clue to another eternal puzzle about the opera: every significant character has at least one magnificent set piece solo aria, in which they reveal their innermost feelings – except for Don Giovanni himself who, though on stage for much of the opera, always sings in conjunction with others. It is as if the Don’s personality in all its complexity, in-cluding his resolute refusal to repent, emerges from his dealings with others, without the need or possibility of his musing on his own character.
The story is well known. Don Giovanni is a rake: in modern terms a serial abuser and rapist. As the opera starts, he is attempting to have his way with Donna Anna when her father, the Commendatore, attempts to intervene but is slain by the younger Don. Throughout the two acts that follow, Giovanni carries on with women from every class from the aristocratic Donna Anna to the peasant girl Zerlina (the outrage in Zerlina’s case being heightened by her being seduced on her wedding day to music of matchless beauty). When Don Giovanni finds himself wandering in a graveyard with Leporello, the stone statue of the Commendatore comes to life and commands Giovanni to repent. Giovanni will have none of it and orders Leporello to invite the statute to dinner. The statue comes to Don Giovanni’s villa, where dinner has been prepared. It concludes with Giovanni being dragged down to hell by the Commendatore’s icy grip, still unre-pentant. The punishment of the rake is the final and most powerful moral of the piece. Even now, Mozart’s music instils terror as Giovanni is subjugated by the Commenda-tore’s higher justice.
Two cataclysmic chords in D Minor followed by awful silences start the overture. At theend of the opera, this music heralds the Commendatore’s arrival for the feast and for vengeance: there can be no doubt that the Don’s past sins will be expiated. Over relentless dotted rhythms the Commendatore’s theme takes control, the ten-sion being ratcheted up by rising and falling scales across the orchestra. Then, in the words of Daniel Barenboim, “the end of the introduction follows uninterrupted-ly into the main Allegro; the repeated notes in the strings remain constant, yet transform the character of the music. In the introduction, they may seem to repre-sent agitation or anguish, but as soon as they move from the violas and second vio-lins to the celli, marking the end of the Andante, the gravity of the introduction is instantly transformed into an open Allegro. Although the speed of the repeated notes remains unchanged, the tempo is quadrupled and the harmony moves into major.” The Allegro is full of themes which find no place later in the opera. It is said that Mozart wrote the overture between midnight and 7 a.m. on the day of the opening performance, having been reminded during a game of billiards that he had not yet written one. The copyist came at 7 and collected the orchestral parts. There was no time to put together a score and no time to rehearse; so the orchestra sight-read the overture in performance, with Mozart directing. Prague was ecstatic, as audiences have been ever since.
Despite its “giocoso” elements, or the ultimate punishment of the unrepentant Don and Mozart’s matchless music, Don Giovanni is and remains a deeply disturbing work, particularly in performance less than two weeks after the conviction of Har-vey Weinstein. In the same essay, written in 2007, Barenboim wrote: “The central issue of the drama is how something so banal as a duel (as it was at that time) inevitably changes his life completely, as well as the lives of those around him. Giovanni is not essentially a diabolical character with sinister intentions, nor does he long for the fusion of Eros and death, a theme developed so thoroughly by Wagner from another perspective. Giovanni leads his life in every moment the way he pleases, in absolute sincerity, without considering the consequences.” Different perspectives may suggest themselves to the #MeToo age in a city scarred by unthinking knife-crime.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Clarinet Concerto in A Major K. 622
Allegro; Adagio; Rondo: Allegro Leopold II, apart from being the Holy Roman Emperor, was the King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia and Lodomeria, Rama, Ser-bia, Cumania and Bulgaria as well as having a bewildering array of other Principali-ties, Archduchies and assorted titles. He was usually an enlightened Prince who has the distinction of being the first European monarch to abolish the death penalty. One of the consequences of his omnipotence was that he had coronations in (at least) Frankfurt, Vienna and Prague, each of which had to be suitably grand occa-sions. No 19th century coronation would be complete without Coronation Music, and Mozart was commissioned by the Estates of Bohemia at short notice to write La Clemenza di Tito in celebration of the coronation of Leopold as King of Bohemia in Pra-gue on 6 September 1791. It was not as if he didn’t have enough on his plate. He was already working on the Magic Flute, which was premiered on 30 September 1791, and he accepted the mysterious commission to write the Requiem shortly before setting off for Prague for the coronation. He and Constanza arrived there on 28 August but the inns were full and so the Mozarts stayed with the composer Franz Xaver Duschek until quarters could be found. The Emperor arrived on 29 August, the Empress Maria Luisa arriving the next day. Music from Don Giovanni arranged for a chamber-music group was performed in her antechamber on 1 September. The next day the full opera (“Il dissoluto punito etc”) was performed in the presence of the Emperor and Empress. A contemporary review reported that “the theatre was beautifully lighted with chande-liers and the Imperial Box decorated”, but said nothing of the music itself; but a Saxon nobleman who had recently arrived gushed (perhaps failing to observe Imperial politi-cal correctness):
“Mozart could witness how a thousand ears followed every string’s vibration, every lisp of the flute and how throbbing bosoms and quickly beating hearts revealed the holy impressions that his harmonies awoke. ….. [A]t this moment I would have preferred to be Mozart rather than Leopold.”
The quantities of Mozart’s music being performed on a daily basis is astonishing, not least because Leopold and his Empress disliked it intensely, referring to La clemenza di Tito as “una porcheria tedesca” (a German swinishness or mess).
Among the musicians especially transported to Prague to play in the Coronation cele-brations was the clarinettist and old friend of Mozart, Anton Stadler. He was to play the clarinet and basset horn solos in Tito. He was also the inventor of the basset clari-net; and his playing was compared to the beauty of the human voice. Mozart had al-ready composed his Clarinet Quintet K. 581 for him, and now he set about writing an-other masterpiece, which proved to be his last instrumental work – tonight’s concerto, which he wrote for the darker tones of Stadler’s basset clarinet.
It is in three movements of deceptively simple lyricism. The opening movement bal-ances serenity and melancholy. The slow movement has a main theme that could only have been written by Mozart and which could have come straight from one of his Da Ponte operas. Simply uttered and then picked up by the orchestra, with a contrasting second subject to follow. The last movement dances lightly along to a courtly conclu-sion. If you think my description is perfunctory, it is because the perfection of the music defies description.
The spirit of gorgeous lyricism that infuses the concerto shows no signs of a sense of impending doom. Nor do Mozart’s letters which, until his last illness became serious, continued the almost unbearable lightness of being that had always characterised them. Still to come was the triumph of the Magic Flute, which filled Schikaneder’s the atre night after night, long after the Emperor had left. Yet at 55 minutes past midnight on Monday 5 December 1791, Mozart died. The great Joseph Haydn said: “Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.” We still wait.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Poco Sostenuto – Vivace; Allegretto; Presto – Assai meno presto; Allegro con Brio
Dedicated followers of the KPO will remember from last November how the lives of Beethoven and Napoleon seemed inextricably intertwined, with the premiere of Bee-thoven’s opera Fidelio playing to empty houses after the cultured classes fled the French occupation of Vienna in November 1805. By then Beethoven’s initial adulation of Napoleon as liberator had changed to implacable opposition to a tyrant; but Napole-on’s star had been in the ascendant and, as with most tyrants, seemed irresistible.
After the zenith of Austerlitz in 1805, French hegemony seemed complete: French ar-mies were invincible, Napoleon’s family and Marshalls occupied thrones, Vienna was reoccupied and the European powers were cowed into submission. Meanwhile, Bee-thoven produced the great music of his middle period. But by 1813 the world had changed. Napoleon’s disastrous decision to invade Russia and occupy Moscow had been followed by the haemorrhaging retreat before the forces of Kutuzov; and the na-tion states stirred again. Prussia was the first to declare in support of Russia, in Febru-ary 1813. In June 1813 Wellington defeated the French at Vittoria, which led to ulti-mate victory in the Peninsular War; and in August, despite major concerns about the balance of power and the dangers of Russian domination, Austria rejoined the struggle. So began the War of Liberation. As Napoleon attempted to retreat to the safety of France’s borders, he suffered his most bloody defeat on 19 October 1813 after four days of fighting at the Battle of Leipzig. Austria, thinking it saw an opportunity to cut Napoleon’s line of retreat once and for all, occupied the town of Hanau. Battle was joined on 30-31 October. Napoleon cleared the city and fell back on France. There is a romanticized painting of the battle by Horace Vernet in the National Gallery. The rest, you may say, is history.
What has this to do with tonight’s symphony, which Beethoven started writing in 1811 during a period of recuperation at Teplitz? The answer lies in its premiere on 8 December 1813 at a concert to benefit the Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at Hanau. It was a spectacular occasion that glossed over the less-than-totally-successful outcome of the battle. The now-liberated Viennese turned out in force. The concert featured not one but two Beethoven premieres: this great symphony and “Wellington’s Victory”, which demonstrated that the greatest of composers can also compose unutterable rubbish at very high speed. The orchestra was star-studded. As Beethoven wrote some days later in a public letter of thanks: “Herr Schuppanzigh [the pre-eminent violinist of the day] was at the head of the first violins, and by his fiery and expressive mode of conducting kindled the zeal of the whole orchestra, Herr Kapellmeister Salieri [yes - that Salieri] did not scruple to give the time to the drums and cannonades; Herr Spohr and Herr Mayseder, each worthy from his talents to fill the highest post, played in the second and third rank. Herr Siboni and Herr Giuliani also filled subordinate plac-es”; and Hummel played the bass drum. In Beethoven’s words again: “the only feeling that pervaded all our hearts was true love for our fatherland.” Beethoven, Sali-eri, Spohr and Hummel on the same stage: has there ever been such a cooperative of composers? Perhaps uncharitably, it was suggested that Hummel was incapable of playing on the beat; but who cares now! Beethoven conducted, his force of will com-pensating, most of the time, for the fact that he could not hear anything except the loudest passages. Physical infirmity gave way to the irresistible power of liberation.
If the symphony was overshadowed by the canon and mortar effects of Wellington’s Victory, it still received a rapturous reception. The second movement was immedi-ately encored and has captivated the imagination ever since. The dominant feature of the work is rhythm from the moment of the strings pulsing scales in the slow intro-duction to the first movement to the shouts of triumph that bring the symphony to its end. And from the moment that hesitant repeated notes give way to the 6/8 of the Vivace, the work is imbued with a sense of dance. Richard Wagner’s famous de-scription is worth quoting in full:
"All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful inso-lence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mould of tone."
But the symphony is not just about the liberation of dance. Underlying Beethoven’s manic rhythmic drive is a persistent undercurrent of conflict. Even the first chords across the full orchestra are startling, and the pulsing scales soon erupt into a fit of violence – a slow introduction of stark contrasts which give no clue of what is to come next: hesitant repeated single notes passed between the flute and oboe and the violins, which suddenly morph into the lilting 6/8 of the Vivace. The first theme is given innocently by the flute, but again it soon becomes clear that there is nothing gentle in store. After a pause to gather breath and strength, the theme is now shout-ed from the rooftops by horns at the very top of their range. Extraordinary energy infuses the rest of the movement as the main theme is worked to a frenzy with short interludes of calm. Listen for the growling undertow of the cellos and basses towards the end. There is no concrete evidence that Carl Maria Von Weber ever said that this was evidence that Beethoven was “ripe for the madhouse” – but he might not have been far off if he had done so. After a final declamation across the whole orchestra, the movement ends as it began, with three short but massive chords.
More has been written about the second movement than about almost any other movement in Beethoven’s symphonies. It starts and finishes with the same open and plangent chord of A minor in the woodwind and horns: a shock after the glorious A major of the previous movement. Some see it as akin to a funeral march, with its steady tread and sombre scoring for the violas, cellos and basses showing the way. Beethoven’s biographer, Jan Swafford, prefers to see the movement as “stately” and that “here commences, as much as in any single piece, the history of Romantic orchestral music. The idea is a process of intensification, adding layer on layer to the inexorably marching chords in the low strings … until the music rises to a sweeping, sorrowful lament.” What is the tune? A single note repeated again and again? No, the real tune waits a moment until the entry of the second violins and then is played by the violas and cellos: sombre again. The movement gathers and maintains an irresistible momentum, relaxing only slightly for the legato second subject, which comes a second time before the ever-ambiguous first “tune” is passed around the orchestra in snatches, brought to a close only by that plangent chord again.
By comparison, the scherzo is a light-hearted romp at high speed with dramatic key changes – “racing, eruptive, giddy” in Swafford’s encapsulation – with two more measured Trio sections. Yet even here, the undercurrent of bacchanalian violence is close to the surface. After a teasing suggestion that the Trio will come back a third time, a short sharp coda leaves one wondering: what could come next? The answer is: the apotheosis, turning up the energy and introducing ever more manic variations. Listen again for the basses grinding away almost like Nibelungs; but everyone has their moment. In answer to a question posed by Swafford: no other symphonic move-ment sweeps listeners off their feet or takes their breath away so nearly literally as this one. Napoleon? Yesterday’s man even if he still had some havoc to wreak across Europe.
Not everyone “gets” the Seventh Symphony. Apart from (possibly apocryphally) We-ber, Sir Thomas Beecham is reported to have said of the third movement: “What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about.” And the music magazine Har-monicum wrote of the symphony in 1829: “We shall never become reconciled to either the first or last movements of this, both being full of asperities and almost un-bearably whimsical.” But most people, from the greatest musicians to the most mod-est, find themselves more than reconciled and in agreement that the symphony is amongst Beethoven’s greatest works.
Before a memorable recent performance at the Barbican, Sir Simon Rattle spoke of the LSO’s affinity for the symphony and their “willingness to drive off the edge of a cliff”. This characteristic is heard in many of the greatest recordings, including Carlos Kleiber’s life-affirming performance with the Vienna Philharmonic (on DG) and Adam Fischer’s recent storm with the Danish Chamber Orchestra (on Naxos) – both of which are revelatory. Each of them leaves the listener with the conviction that Beethoven would have approved. Now drive on. Jeremy Stuart-Smith
CONDUCTOR – Claudio di Meo
Winner of the International Conducting Competition Westminster with the London Classical Soloists, Claudio began his musical life in Italy, where he studied piano, composition and conducting, winning First Prize at the Italian National Choir Conducting Competition in 2011 and First Prize at the Enrico Caruso International Competition in 2014. An ar-dent exponent of the music of Sibelius, Claudio is a member of the prestigious Sibelius Society Italia.
Claudio has performed regularly on the internation-al stage, including appearances in Hungary (Olasz VendègKòrus Concert Hall, Buda-pest) and at the 2014 New Year Concert, St. John the Divine Cathedral, New York).
Claudio is passionate about working with singers in choral and chamber music. In 2015, he formed the Lumina Choir, and has since established performance exchang-es with orchestras and choirs in Sweden, Germany and Italy. Claudio is also an accomplished chamber musician. Recent engagements include performances with soprano Olivia Robinson (BBC Singers) and Nicholas Korth (Co-principal Horn BBC Symphony Orchestra).
Claudio is widely experienced in film music, musical theatre and thematic musical stage productions as both pianist and composer. He won a composition award in 2013 from the Governor of the State of Mexico in recognition of his “great profes-sionalism and future potential as a composer of music for cinema.” Recent high-lights include a production of Maria Callas The Black Pearl, which premiered at the prestigious Esplanade Theatre in Singapore and at Grange Park Opera. He has also collaborated with the theatrical production company Stage Entertainment in pro-ductions of Beauty and the Beast in Rome and has conducted performances of pop-ular musicals such as Aladdin, Alice in Wonderland and Oklahoma! in England.
Claudio is highly skilled in developing the talent of young performers. He was ap-pointed Principal Conductor of Dacorum Youth Orchestra in 2015 and continues to inspire a new generation of musicians with his infectious enthusiasm and commit-ment. In 2018 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Hemel Symphony Or-chestra and, as a freelance conductor, has been invited to work with other orches-tras, including the London Classical Soloists and Trinity Orchestra Harrow.
Claudio’s discography as a pianist includes recordings of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye and Debussy’s Six épigraphes antiques, as well as his own compositions Oceano di cie-lo and most recently, Memories, a collection of 10 pieces for solo piano. This collec-tion has also been published by Upper Esk Music, alongside Three Motets for the Virgin Mary, a collection of his choral music.
Michael Barham studied clarinet at the Royal Marines School of Music in Deal, Kent under Len Foster (Halle Orchestra). After graduating he played extensively in concert venues around the world for twelve years as Solo Clarinet with the orchestra, military band and jazz band of the HM Royal Marines. He also performed for visiting heads of state and at state occasions such as the Festival of Remembrance and at Wembley cup finals, as well as playing in the resident onboard ensemble.
He now plays in various orchestras in London and the South Coast including the Newgarth Light Orchestra, Sussex Symphony, Kew Sinfonia and the Richmond Orchestra with whom he has performed the Strauss Duo Concertante, Mozart Sinfonia Concertante and the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Other recent concerto performances include appearances with the Lewes Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Bournemouth Philharmonic Society (world premiere of a new work by Paul Coles). Michael is also co-founder of the Nightingale Players wind quintet.
Michael combines an administrative position at the Putney High School with freelance performance and teaching clarinet and saxophone. He has a teaching and coaching position at the Tri-borough Hub Music Service based out of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.
KENSINGTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
The KPO, founded in 1965, is one of London’s leading amateur orchestras. It provides opportunities for advanced players of all ages to perform works from the classical and modern repertoire, Including pieces that are rarely heard in the concert hall. It also provides a platform for well-established soloists, as well as exciting younger players. Soloists over the years have included Iona Brown, Hugh Bean, Jack Brymer, Melina Mandozzi and Thomas Carroll and “younger generation” performers such as Milos Karadaglic and Fenella Humphries.
The KPO welcomes advanced players, particularly strings. Rehearsals are held on Monday evenings in the hall at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, SW1W 9AL from 7.00pm—9.30pm (nearest tube Victoria Station).