Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801)
Overture, Il Maestro di cappella (1792)
[arr. Ton Koopman]
Cimarosa’s most famous opera, The Secret Marriage, was first performed in Vienna just after Mozart’s death in 1791. Hailed as something more than a mere imitation of his master’s voice, the work was a hit, “another Figaro,” dapper and charming - and even better, or so it was said, than the glorious comedy with which it was compared.
Its success was conspicuous. The complete work was immediately repeated on the night of its premiere in the presence of the Emperor Leopold II, who had just made Cimarosa his maestro di cappella (music director) in succession to Salieri. But, having given his blessing to one of the longest encores in operatic history, the emperor died three weeks later and Cimarosa returned to his native Naples to continue his previous life as a prolific opera composer and court organist (he had already served, like Vivaldi before him, as music director at a girls’ school in Venice).
Today, The Secret Marriage still holds a deserved if less exalted place in the repertoire as a piece of low-calory Mozart rather than the real McCoy. But Mozart lite, from the hands of an expert, is not to be despised and Cimarosa’s almost Rossinian expertise speaks for itself, not only in The Secret Marriage but in Il Maestro di cappella, completed in 1792 as an operatic monologue for the voice of a flustered bass-baritone.
The music is a tease, illustrating the maestro’s inability to conduct his own orchestra, whose members pay no attention to him. They mistime their entries, play the wrong notes, and show themselves to be in constant dispute with each other as well as with him. Not until the end are the problems resolved and the music - a delicious send-up of eighteenth-century recitative and aria - at last makes sense.
The overture, launched in Cimarosa’s most wittily subversive vein, sets the scene. The racy strings and frolicsome woodwind, complete with humorously staccato bassoons, show the world of Figaro to be not far away - though it is as an Italian equivalent of Mozart’s satirical comedy, Der Schauspieldirektor (1786), that Il Maestro di cappella can be best savoured.
© Conrad Wilson
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No 31 in D major, K297 'Paris' (1778)
This Symphony dates from Mozart’s extended visit to Paris in the spring and summer of 1778. It was composed for the Concerts Spirituels, the most important of the Parisian concert-giving organisations, and is on the grand scale characteristic of orchestral music in Paris and also in Mannheim, where Mozart had spent the previous winter. The orchestra consists of strings and two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with timpani. This is the largest band for which Mozart scored a symphony from the outset (the 'Haffner', No 35, has the same instrumentation, but the flute and clarinet parts are later additions). Mozart’s music is correspondingly brilliant, and we know that he consciously set out with this piece to impress and win over the Paris audience.
One way in which he did this was by adopting the convention of the 'premier coup d'archet', the opening attack or 'first stroke of the bow' which was the pride of Parisian music. Mozart’s energetic version of this simple enough device serves to introduce, and later to hold together, an exposition which is long, full of ideas, and remarkable for saying a great many things twice over. For all these reasons, presumably, it is not repeated; instead, the 'coup d'archet' theme whips the movement onwards into the development section, and soon, surprisingly, into the distant key of F major – in which key there is a passage of airy interchange between the violins only loosely based on what has gone before. The recapitulation follows shortly afterwards, and, while it does not imitate the exposition slavishly, turns out to be on every bit as large a scale.
Mozart wrote two slow movements for the 'Paris' Symphony, both in G major, but one in 6/8 time and one in 3/4. According to a letter he wrote to his father after the first performance, he was told by Legros, the director of the Concerts Spirituels, that his original Andante was too long and full of key-changes for the Paris audience. Though he disagreed with this opinion, he obliged with a replacement for a repeat performance in August; and, having written it, decided he liked it better than the first. Most writers on Mozart (with the significant exception of the scholar Alan Tyson) have concluded that the 6/8 movement now usually performed is the earlier of the two: it certainly feels the more ambitious, with its stern interjections in octaves and its telling alternations of major and minor. That means that the movement Mozart ultimately preferred is the one in 3/4, delicately scored with a woodwind section of a single flute, oboe and bassoon. In any case, tonight’s performance offers a rare chance to compare the two.
Having opened his first movement with the traditional 'coup d'archet', Mozart starts his finale softly on violins alone, and lets the full band loose only after eight bars: this reversal of the usual procedure pleased the audience mightily at the first performance, as Mozart knew it would. The movement also contains a formal upset on a larger scale, concerning the second subject, which is introduced in fugal texture. This theme is given intensive treatment in the development section, so much so that it threatens to take over the movement. But Mozart restores the balance by leaving it out of the recapitulation completely, bridging the gap with an unexpected chromatic scale, and then driving onwards to his brilliant conclusion as if nothing had failed to happen.
© Anthony Burton
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and popular guest conductor Nicholas McGegan perform symphonies by Mozart and Haydn, both written to impress the Parisian audiences of their time. There are also well-known favourites and rarities from 18th century operatic repertoire, including music by Mozart and Cimarosa and a selection of arias by Haydn, performed by the brilliant South African baritone William Berger. A perfect programme for a summer evening’s entertainment from one of the world’s finest chamber orchestras .
Tickets available from Strathpeffer Pavilion, The Square, Strathpeffer 01997 420124 and June’s Card Shop, High Street, Dingwall (in person only)