Classical Opera – Grabmusik / Bastien und Bastienne Back

Readers of Criticks have been following the journey of Ian Page and The Mozartists (known also as Classical Opera) in recent years. In 2015, they embarked on the ambitious 27-year MOZART 250 project, programming all the operas and many other works by Mozart, in addition to music by his contemporaries, exactly 250 years after their origination. In tandem with this epic cycle of performances spanning the best part of three decades, Page has also set out to create benchmark recordings of each of Mozart’s operas. Having just released a seventh opera recording, Page and The Mozartists are already about a third of the way through this ambitious cycle. The operas are not recorded in chronological order, though the release of this recording of Bastien und Bastienne, composed in 1768, coincided with the MOZART 250 performance of the same work.

Until the 1980s, Bastien und Bastienne enjoyed its cachet as Mozart’s very first opera. We now know this was a false claim, since it is actually the composer’s fourth operatic work. However, it is undoubtedly his most modest opera, including only a three-part cast. It has a simple and rustic musical style and its running time is approximately 50 minutes, quite short in comparison to a typical eighteenth-century opera, which would last between two and three hours. Due to such brevity, Page supplemented this CD with a performance of Mozart’s Grabmusik (1767), which opens this disc. I must confess, it was the recording of Grabmusik that I was most excited to hear.

Upon the Mozart family’s return to Salzburg from their Great Tour (1763–66) there were many who were sceptical of young Wolfgang’s ability as a composer, believing that Leopold was helping him more than they were being led to believe. As a result, the Prince-Archbishop had Wolfgang locked away ‘only with music paper, and the words of an oratorio’ as a test of his true skill. It is widely believed that the oratorio in question is Grabmusik, a concise and beautifully powerful little work for a small orchestra and two vocal soloists. Its narrative follows a dialogue between a Soul tormented by the pain inflicted on Christ and an Angel, who provides comfort and peace to the Soul, excellently performed here by baritone Jacques Imbrailo and soprano Anna Lucia Richter.

The opening recitative (‘Wo bin ich? bittrer Schmerz!’) is immediately striking due to the sombre depth of sound in the secco accompaniment. The combination of harpsichord (instead of the more typical chamber organ) with ‘cello and double bass in octaves gives a wonderfully dark sonority throughout. This is followed by a hefty aria (‘Felsen, spaltet euren Rachen’) in which the Soul calls upon nature to collapse in light of Christ’s death. Imbrailo’s performance here is impressive and highly convincing. Page reckons Mozart did not write anything more challenging and virtuosic for the bass voice, and Imbrailo conveys both these elements of the aria, excellently navigating the coloratura inflicted by an eleven-year-old Mozart whilst expressing the suffering character of the Soul.

Anna Lucia Richter’s Angel adds a beautifully warm and lyrical voice to the performance. Her aria (‘Betracht dies Herz’) finishes abruptly with a very slow adagio in which she tells the Soul to surrender his heart and melt in sorrow. With the exception of a couple of higher notes, which sound slightly unprepared, Richter’s performance captures the bittersweet message of the Angel very well.

According to his liner notes, Page reckons Grabmusik is ‘one of the most remarkable works of Mozart’s prodigious childhood’. One can be in no doubt about this. The dramatic performance provided here demonstrates Mozart’s early brilliance as a dramatist, capable of capturing and portraying a wide range of emotional states.

Grabmusik completely contrasts with Bastien und Bastienne. The modest scale of this opera is partly due to the fact that Bastien und Bastienne is the only opera Mozart wrote that was not intended for performance in a theatre, making it easily the most accessible of Mozart’s operas from a performance and staging point of view. It was commissioned by the Doctor Franz Anton Mesmer for performance in his living room during the Mozarts’ trip to Vienna in 1767–68. Its subject matter was very popular at the time, deriving from Le devin du village by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Paris, 1752).

Page left no stone unturned in his preparatory research for this recording. As a result, this recording of Bastien und Bastienne is believed to be the first to represent how it would have been performed in Vienna in 1768. The main difference between this version and more familiar ones is the text. Mozart came back to Bastien und Bastienne upon his return to Salzburg, where texts were revised by Johann Andreas Schachtner and a handful of recitatives were included in place of the dialogues. The discovery of an autograph manuscript in Poland in the 1980s provides crucial evidence removing prior assumptions that Mozart began work with Schachtner prior to leaving for Vienna in 1767. We now know this was not the case, however most of the changes made during the Salzburg revision have been absorbed into all the existing editions.

Bastien und Bastienne is a curious little opera with a relatively simple plot. Bastienne, a shepherdess, is concerned that her sweetheart Bastien has lost interest in her and fallen for a noble lady from the city. She calls upon Colas, the local soothsayer, to help. Colas, being a fortune-teller among other things, assures her that Bastien is just distracted and has not abandoned her. He recommends that she act indifferent towards Bastien for a while. Bastien then enters, declaring his love for Bastienne to Colas, who informs him that Bastienne has in fact found a new lover. Bastien, distraught, enlists the magician’s help. Colas casts a nonsense spell and proclaims that Bastienne once again loves Bastien, though Bastienne decides to keep up the charade a little longer. Bastien then threatens suicide, to which Bastienne wishes him good luck. The lovers eventually acknowledge their feelings for each other, at which point Colas returns to celebrate.

Most of the arias are less than two minutes long and there is very little in the way of character development. Richter is a good choice for the role of Bastienne and is the standout vocal performance for me (though it must be admitted that there is much more on offer for Bastienne’s role than the others). Being German, she demonstrates how colourful and expressive the language can be, and her lighter, lyric voice highlights both her anguish in the early stages of the opera as well as her slightly more manipulative character towards the end while she is winding Bastien up. Alessandro Fisher is a brilliant Bastien. His boisterous entrance in ‘Grossen Dank’ captures the blissful ignorance of the sorrow he has caused Bastienne, while his ‘Meiner Liebsten schöne Wangen’ has a beautiful sonority, aided by the flutes’ only appearance in the opera. Darren Jeffery rounds out the strong cast as Colas, bringing fire and brimstone to the famous fake sorcery aria ‘Tätzel, Brätzel’, the better-known Salzburg alternative of which is also included as an appendix track on the disc.

The common theme between the performances of Grabmusik and Bastien und Bastienne, and the element I enjoy the most, is the immaculate orchestral accompaniment, led by Matthew Truscott, and the impeccable musical taste of Ian Page. His choice of tempos and careful phrasing facilitates a truly refreshing and interesting performance of both the works on this disc. In Bastien und Bastienne in particular, many existing recordings fall flat, while Page and The Mozartists bring out so many more points of interest in this simple work than one would expect. Both Mozart’s Grabmusik and Bastien und Bastienne are treated like little gems here, making this CD an ideal point of discovery both for those curious about Mozart’s earlier works and the Mozart connoisseur alike.

Classical Opera’s recording of Grabmusik / Bastien und Bastienne was released on 18 September 2018 and is available from Signum Classics.