Two choirs join to expose Salieri the choral composer

Mass in D (Hofkapellmeister Messe) and Te Deum for the Coronation of Emperor Leopold II; La tempesta di mare and Overture: Armida

The Festival Singers and the Wainuiomata Choir, and orchestra, conducted by David Beattie

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Sunday 15 August at 2.30pm

My colleague Rosemary Collier allowed herself to lament that so many choirs had scheduled their concerts in such a short span this month; and the overload continues. On Wednesday 11th there was a concert by the choir of Sacred Heart Cathedral, augmented by singers from Christine Argyle’s Nota Bene, who had joined forces with the Choir of Christchurch Boys’ High School, conducted by Don Whelan. They sang Widor’s Mass for Two Choirs and Two Organs; I heard about it too late and was very disappointed to have missed it.

This past weekend, there have been two performances of Monteverdi‘s monumental Vespers of 1610 by Musica Sacra at St Mary of the Angels, and this concert under review of choral and orchestral music by Salieri.  Next weekend comes Bach’s B Minor Mass from the Orpheus Choir (Sunday 22 August); the following Sunday, the 29th, the Bach Choir tackles two great liturgical works: Cherubini’s first Requiem (C minor) of 1816 and Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir; and on Saturday 4 September the Tudor Consort sings major works by Schütz and Domenico Scarlatti.

The Salieri concert involved two choirs; choirs that, like so many others, struggle to attract male voices, and they made an excellent decision to combine for a particularly interesting concert. It was given entirely to the compositions of one of those well-known but little heard composers that populate the pages of music history.

Thanks to that popular but disgraceful film Amadeus, the 19th century myth about Salieri’s role in Mozart’s death, together with an almost entirely false representation of Mozart himself, did serious damage to music history and to the reputations of two composers. They left the impression that Salieri might indeed have been a murderer.

But it has also stimulated curiosity about Salieri and has led to the exploration of his music by orchestras, choirs and opera houses around the world. Opera Otago produced his Falstaff in 2006.

In fact, the two composers were quite close, and though Mozart was disappointed not to get the position of Hofkapellmeister to the court of Joseph II, which was given to Salieri and for whose coronation he wrote this Mass in D, there is plenty of evidence of a normal friendly relationship.

In his last surviving letter from 14 October 1791, Mozart tells his wife that he collected Salieri in his carriage and drove him to the opera, to see The Magic Flute, and he writes that Salieri was enthusiastic: “He heard and saw with all his attention, and from the overture to the last choir there was not piece that didn’t elicit a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Bello!’ out of him”.

If there had been jealousy on either side, it was much more likely to have been on Mozart’s, for Salieri was by far the more successful composer in Vienna for most of the 1780s.

For example, when Salieri was appointed Kapellmeister in 1788 he revived Figaro instead of bringing out a new opera of his own; and when he went to the 1790 coronation festivities in Frankfurt for Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor he had three Mozart masses in his luggage. Mozart was passed over for any official role at the coronation, but he went at his own risk and expense, played his piano concerto in D, K 537 but failed to make much impact.

The Te Deum performed in the second half of this concert was Salieri’s offering for Leopold’s coronation in Frankfurt.

Though the orchestra, drawn mainly from players in the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, announced itself with a degree of uncertainty in the first bars, the entry of the full choir in the Kyrie of the Mass in D reassured me that I was in for an interesting time. The tone was serious without pomposity, revealing a work furnished with attractive and original melody, and put together with taste and polish. It was imposing, and could easily have been mistaken for a liturgical work of Mozart or Haydn. But the musical quality was not uniformly maintained, for example in the rather more routine Credo, though its ‘Et Resurrexit’ was jolly enough. Its virtues lay in its sheer compositional skill and variety, and Salieri’s flair for dramatic colouring.

That the music’s strengths were so clear was due in some part to the performance. Though the orchestra had its weaknesses, a concertato string group in single parts contributed happily; a cello solo in the Gloria, and violin and cello in the Benedictus, acquitted themselves capably in charming episodes. On the whole the festive orchestration, with prominent trumpets and timpani, created the sort of ceremonial effect, including a quotation from the Austrian National Anthem in the Agnus Dei, not far short of comparable works by Mozart.

On the other hand, the decision to draw solo voices from the choir itself was generally less successful: better trained voices were needed, or these episodes should have been left instead to small ensembles. However, the full choir, even on occasion, a cappella, excelled themselves and the effects were often exciting. The Agnus Dei with its arresting pauses, the dramatic impact of ‘Dona nobis pacem’ spoke of a composer of great skill and considerable gifts.

The second half was taken largely by the Coronation Te Deum. The church’s organ (Jonathan Berkahn), together with the orchestra, provided the accompaniment for the full choir, with conspicuous attention to balance and phrasing by David Beattie (conductor of the Wainuiomata Choir); the result was an opening of considerable grandeur. If not impeccable, the orchestra again gave the performance all the colour and rhythmic élan needed; distinguished by a high trumpet at the words ‘Dignare, Domine’. Although Salieri demonstrated his confidence by employing nothing but a plain major triad as pivot for the final section, ‘In te Domine’, a composer of greater genius was needed to carry off such a self-imposed challenge.

The second half had begun with two opera overtures: Armida and La tempesta di mare. I can find no corroboration of the programme notes’ statement that it was the overture to the opera Europa riconosciutta (though that opera opens with a storm) which Salieri wrote for the opening of the La Scala theatre in Milan in 1778; it was also used to re-open La Scala in 2004 after major restoration.

Both overtures were products of the Sturm und Drang era – a reaction against the Enlightenment, Classicism and the rationalism of the earlier 18th century, a precursor of Romanticism – that produced Haydn’s symphonies of the early 1770s, like Il Distratto, and Schiller’s play Die Räuber which Verdi turned into I Masnadieri:.rhetorical, expressing extreme emotion, imitating noises of nature, rising and falling scales and arpeggios, ostinati, drones, dramatic percussion, and… some iffy wind intonation.

Armida was one of Salieri’s most important Italian operas, dated 1774, as a protégé of Gluck whose influential Iphigénie en Aulide appeared in that same year. The story, taken from that fertile Renaissance source of theatre stories for the next three centuries, Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata, was also set by composers from Lully and Vivaldi, Handel, Gluck, Jommelli, Mysliveček, Sacchini, Haydn, Rossini (his gained attention through a spectacular production this year by the Metropolitan Opera, New York), and, most surprisingly, Dvořák. The overture was a little more substantial than La tempesta di mare, with again, clear signs of Gluck’s influence. The depiction of the magic in the story took a form that suggested to me pantomime rather than anything more supernatural.

These pieces did less to enhance Salieri’s musical reputation than the two choral works, but were nevertheless interesting in fleshing out one’s view of opera in the 1770s.

The concert was a welcome adventure, carried off with sensibility and musical diligence.

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