Extended play: the world's longest Mozart festival debuts at Wigmore Hall

On Mozart 250 and Sarah Connolly in America.

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When the Mozart family arrived in London in April 1765, they had been on the road for a long time. Since leaving Salzburg two years earlier, the eight-year-old Wolfgang and his 12-year-old sister, Nannerl, had performed for rulers and courtiers all over the Holy Roman Empire, as well making visits to Paris and Versailles. Their father, Leopold, had embarked on this lengthy and risky journey as way of sharing his children’s exceptional musical abilities with the wider world, with the hope that it would make them influential connections to call upon in the future – in the 18th century, being a composer was a precarious existence.

The year that the young Wolfgang spent in London was a particularly formative musical period for him. As well as playing for George III, he was introduced to the musicians Carl Friedrich Abel and J C Bach (son of Johann Sebastian) and was exposed to the Anglo-German musical culture that had grown up in the city since the Hanoverian accession in 1714. He began to write his first symphonies, as well as vocal pieces such as the sacred motet “God is our Refuge”, which was dedicated to the newly established British Museum.

The debut concert of the Mozart 250 project (Wigmore Hall) sought to capture the musical flavour of this crucial year in the young composer’s life. Listening to Ian Page and his Classical Opera ensemble play Mozart’s Symphony No 1 in E flat major, it is difficult to comprehend that this confident and technically assured composition issued from the mind of an eight-year-old. It is perhaps possible to discern a certain childish flavour in the slow second movement – is that heavy, ascending figure in the bass inspired by Leopold’s tread on the stairs, as he comes to shoo his young son away from the keyboard and back to whatever he was supposed to be doing? The care and delicacy that Page’s players take with this early instrumental music makes it possible to hear new lines in even the most familiar pieces.

The programme featured works by Haydn, Gluck, Sacchini and other composers working in 1765, alongside Mozart’s own compositions from that time. Sarah Fox produced a warm, tender performance of an aria from J C Bach’s highly influential opera Adriano in Siria, but her fellow soprano Anna Devin was less successful with an intricate selection from Gluck’s Telemaco – her brittle tone and overactive vibrato struggled against the composer’s ever-more elaborate ornamentation in the vocal line. The early Mozart concert arias included in the programme provided tantalising glimpses of the potential that would flower years later in works such as The Magic Flute and Così fan tutte.

For Ian Page and Classical Opera, this concert is just the beginning. The Mozart 250 project will track his work and influences for the next 27 years, with the intention of bringing little-known contemporaneous pieces back to our attention in the versions Mozart would have heard. It is a monumental undertaking, and, if this first outing is anything to go by, one that will be well worth following.

Leap forward a couple of centuries or so and you arrive at the very different musical landscape explored by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the Britten Sinfonia. Their selection of 20th-century American compositions, including Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson poems and music for the ballet Appalachian Spring, came together into an intriguing programme for the Barbican at the Guildhall School of Music (even if they were performed in rather a strange order).

The highlight was undoubtedly the rarely performed A History of the Thé Dansant by Richard Rodney Bennett (an adopted, if not native, American). The smooth, evocative songs suited the deep tones of Connolly’s voice perfectly, transporting us to a 1920s dance hall with a foxtrot in full swing. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings provided a compelling counterpoint, the Britten Sinfonia expertly emphasising the dissonance and overlapping suspensions that mark it out as a modernist masterpiece.

The encore came as a bit of a surprise – two numbers from the American Songbook. Connolly’s usually astonishing voice sounded flat and restrained in these simple songs, and the Britten Sinfonia’s strings, so warm and rich when playing Copland, became blowsy and exaggerated to meet the demands of overwritten arrangements. It made for a striking and not altogether welcome contrast. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English