Talking Heads: Ian Page

Arcana has an audience with Ian Page, conductor and artistic director of Classical Opera and The Mozartists. We are talking about Mozart’s stay in London, which the group have put under the microscope with a handsome release on Signum Classics last year. It is all part of Page’s ambitious Mozart 250 enterprise, an imaginative project bringing Mozart’s career to life not just through his own music but through that of his contemporaries.

Page recalls how the latest CD project began. “We had some of the programs from the actual concerts to work with, which was four and half concerts’ worth. There is so much stuff that he did when he was here that was very surprising, that we won’t have heard, but there were things that they did that ended up in the music library in Salzburg. It was such a wide range of music.”

Mozart lived in London for just over a year, from 23 April 1764 until 24 July 1765 – and was only eight when moving to the capital. Despite that, there is a surprising amount of music from his pen – and from his contemporaries. “I didn’t realise there was so much in London!” admits Page. “Loads of those were composers I had never heard of, and I’m supposed to be a specialist! There was one composer we didn’t feature, who was in the programmes but didn’t end up on the CD – an Italian guy called Mateo Ventor, who wrote an opera called La della fonte which Mozart would definitely have heard. We decided in the end that two CDs’ worth was right, and because they were all live concerts there was one CDs’ worth that you couldn’t discern if it was studio or not. For the second CD there were some minor blemishes. I thought it best to get over myself and get the repertoire out there, because there is so much worth hearing! It’s funny coming to it after doing the operas in studio recordings, where you have a choice of versions.”

Even now it is difficult to reconcile how Mozart was so young when he wrote what he did. Page has a theory. “I think it’s a testament also to the quality of stuff that was going on. He was such a magpie. You know the Abel Symphony that people thought was by Mozart? It’s an understandable mistake to make, because it’s genuinely a really top quality piece.”

It seems London will be the start of a Europe-wide venture. “I’m hoping to do a similar one for Mozart in Italy,” he explains, “because a lot of stuff survived that we know he heard when he was in Italy, and some degree of a score survived – complete operas this time. I haven’t had a chance yet to work out if they are any good or not, because it does rather rely on that, and not releasing things for the sake of it.”

I try to cast Ian’s mind back to the research he did before deciding to embark on Mozart 250, assuming it must have been an astonishing amount. “I genuinely can’t remember when I first had the idea”, he recalls, “but it was the sort of stuff we were doing with Classical Opera, so it made sense to package it. Part of it was a reaction against lazy programming, and having an anniversary for the sake of it. I remember when the 2006 anniversary happened, and I felt that nobody would want to hear Mozart in 2007 because of the exhaustive nature of the programming. It is a similar story with the Beethoven one coming up in 2020. It seems to me that the whole reason to celebrate something is to make it more part of our lives in the long term. The Mozart 250 came well after that, but I suddenly thought it would be a great way to mark it, and the temerity of it made me giggle because I’m not generally someone who plans things out. To be able to say we’re doing Idomeneo in 2031 is just something that makes me laugh!”

It has distinct advantages too. “It means every season you don’t start off with a blank canvas. Recently we did Haydn’s Applausus, and if we didn’t do it this year we would have missed the boat! I do find I have this growing sort of paranoia that I’m going to come across this neglected masterpiece that was written 251 years ago! It’s been a lot more research since having the idea. Even something like Applausus, where I knew about it and was interested in doing it, as soon as there was a rationale for doing it, it makes those choices. Similarly in 2016 we did the opera Apollo et Hyacinthus, it was because Mozart didn’t write much in that year. It worried me that it wasn’t going to be a great year, but all it means is that you dig a little bit deeper. I think 1769 is the other ‘weak’ year where there is very little Mozart and Haydn, one Gluck – and again it just means you look sideways a bit more.”

The reputations of Mozart’s fellow composers have been boosted. “I’ve been surprised by how much that contemporary stuff has taken off more at the moment than Mozart’s writing in a way. In January we did a retrospective at the Wigmore Hall of 1768 in general, and I’m still toying at late notice with a potential window in November where we might put in the whole of the Hasse opera we did an aria from, because it was done so well. It is a balancing act between long term planning and when you do find something that really merits unearthing.”

Our discussion shifts to the dangers of lazy programming – specifically how poor Haydn is often shunted to the start of a concert, rather than being made the main feature a lot of his work deserves. Page agrees. “Yes, and it’s always one of the symphonies with a nickname. There is so much else. For Applausus he wrote a wonderful letter with instructions on what he wanted them to do. He said if you tell me the date of the performance, I’ll try and dash off an overture for you, but if not all you need is an Allegro and Andante from a Symphony in C major, because the first movement grows out of it. So we did the first movement of the Symphony no.38, and the players and the audience just loved it! He just didn’t write bad music, it’s extraordinary. Most composers did, but what struck me with Applausus was the consistency of the writing.”

Is Mozart a little more variable? “Slightly,” he agrees. “We’ll definitely do all the operas, and all the concert arias, and I think the symphonies we will do most of. They were so much more flexible in those days, you could easily turn an opera overture into a symphony. There is a danger of getting a bit completist and worthy with the project, but there is also a lot of interesting stuff. What really plays into our hands I think is that because we have chosen to specialise so closely on a particular era, you feel how the players would have felt at the time. Of course our players branch out into all sorts of other repertoire, like Handel and Schubert, but for Mozart In London, we had a week of rehearsals and half way through we suddenly found that we were in the idiom. The stuff we did in days four and five we picked up immediately, because we were so immersed. That was really interesting to get a feel for what the players felt, because they had not had to jump from France or Italy, they were doing music from their own city where composers came, where there was no outside influence.”

What was the reason the Mozart family came over? “I think the Mozart family does get a bit of bad press here, but it is also swings and roundabouts, and I think Leopold (Mozart’s father) did cash in on it a bit. I do think when they left Salzburg it was not necessarily part of the plan. He knew they were going to go to Paris, but what they found was that everybody on the road said to them that they must go to London. They tagged it on, and then stayed for 15 months. The argument is that it wasn’t so much a musical education as a general one, a fermenting pot. Mozart’s dad brought a hi-tech microscope when he was in London, and brought it back to Salzburg. There was lots going on – the letters Leopold wrote talk about a Westminster pavement, and streetlights that stayed on all night, so he says this is the city that never sleeps – because they were not used to not having blackouts at night! Things like that are so interesting, and I love those sideways bits. Blackfriars Bridge was under construction, for instance. The letters are so colourful. His dad drank English beer, and complained about it, and then had to pay more money to buy Italian wine instead!”

“The other thing that is a ridiculously tiny detail was reading about the people that were around. Two things happened, one was that all the choral works tended to have all the same singers in them, so after work no.10 the same 20 singers would know all the stuff. Thomas Arne and John Beard, who were running the scene at the time, were known as Tommy and Johnny, which transforms them – Tommy Arne sounds like a wide boy! It gives the period so much more colour. Mozart’s dad wrote all these letters and kept a travel diary, so they went to the Tower of London, and visited the menagerie and the zoo, where Mozart was terrified of the lions. He couldn’t stand the noise! His sister writes of seeing these striped donkeys she’d never seen before! It was a really lovely time reading those. I started this word document with all the pieces we know were performed, at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and Haymarket, were listed. There were notes on the orchestration but for the English repertoire we had to orchestrate some from short score, pocket size. I probably rejected around 80% of the options!”

As you will have gathered, Page is a great storyteller, and agrees that the double album they have completed is as much a portrait of London as it is Mozart. “Yes, and it’s funny how these things dawn on you later. The Applausus that we did, about two months ago I thought I hadn’t come across a single piece of reference to its performance in the UK. I got in touch with the Handel and Haydn Society and they didn’t think it had been done either! There are often reasons but even then the contemplation of why some pieces survive – Bolero and Karelia Suite, where the composers wonder why are they listening to that, it’s not what I wanted to be remembered for! When we were doing the Mozart in London a couple of months after we did a concert of the full J.C.Bach opera Adriano in Siria, and that was fantastic music, really strong and beautifully crafted, like beautiful furniture, the work of a craftsman.”

Was it easy to get interest from record companies around the Mozart 250 project? “With Signum the initial agreement was to do a complete Mozart cycle which we had started two years previously with Linn. Signum were one of not many labels who would let us bring in our own team. If I said I wanted to work with Andrew Mellor they were fine, whereas most would have their own team. There is a freedom about it, and they loved the idea of Mozart 250, and loved the idea of planning to record one opera per year for the next 20 years, of which we are now seven in. That’s a strong background, and then the idea and hope is we will be able to do one other disc per year, so we’ve done discs with Sophie Bevan and Allan Clayton, which is a disc slightly linked to this with some John Beard stuff.”

Page remembers the audience reaction to the first Mozart 250 concerts. “It was very niche, our first time at Milton Court. The audiences were very small, and I know of only a few dozen who treated it as a whole weekend, where most chose the concerts they wanted to come to. There was an amazing sense among the people who were there, a wonderful feeling that they were grateful we were doing this repertoire. A couple of players have said to me in the last six months that the Mozart In London series was their favourite project, because of the immersion. I think it’s growing.”

“The ability to listen to everything in context is what it’s all about. I’ve just been conducting Beethoven’s Choral Symphony for our twentieth anniversary, and it has really whetted my appetite. I feel that with the Beethoven anniversary brewing, it doesn’t need wall to wall Beethoven, it needs something else and more context.”
Thinking ahead, he says, “It will be interesting to see if we’re having a similar conversation in five years’ time, because for Beethoven my brain is probably where it was for Mozart 250 two years before that. In my head my challenge is to come up with an acceptable program for each symphony, and sometimes it might be as simple as devising the program that was done when it was premiered. I would shy away from doing the famous example with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and the Fourth Piano Concerto, but maybe do the one with the Fourth Symphony and the Violin Concerto which is interesting. As you say looking sideways is interesting. Another thing I am interested in is Beethoven playing the viola in Bonn for a number of years, and I think there is research going on to see what the repertoire was. They did operas there as well, and that would make a fascinating weekend of concerts I think, to explore what he was playing.”

“In the first half of the Beethoven 9 concert we did an aria with chorus from the Cantata for Leopold II, which is an amazing piece. There is a very good recording by the Corydon Singers and Orchestra with Matthew Best on Hyperion, and tracks four and five – a soprano aria leading to a chorus – just make sure you’re listening in a darkened room and turn those two tracks up. They will blow you away!”

Creative juices flowing, he thinks further ahead. “For the Pastoral Symphony, I’m thinking it would be great to explore the possibility of doing a first half of nature arias for the creation and seasons, or some of the other program symphonies that were being written at the time. It needs something else to package them together – rather than doing something like the last three Mozart symphonies together in a single concert. You know that it’s not what the composer had in mind.”

There are further clues from Beethoven on how the order of performance has changed over the centuries. “There is a Beethoven letter about which way round to do the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he says that when you’ve got the real meat of the program you should do it in the first half when the audience is fresh, rather than in the second. That’s so interesting I think. The other thing they did a lot of I think is mixing genres, to have a solo piece and a symphonic piece together is quite refreshing.”

There is a hint of frustration in his voice, despite the accompanying smile. “Everything else we know about the composers shows them to be extraordinarily inventive minds, so why would we not be led by their best views to present a concert? It’s funny, the sliding scales we have – nobody would dream of playing the wrong note on purpose, but we’re quite cavalier about dynamics or scoring or seating.”

Back to the Mozart 250 project – and an important element of it being the commitment to young artists, keeping them part of the framework in which Page presents the music. “It is important, yes,” he agrees, “and imperceptibly, in recent years, we have started to say that we’re now quite often working with designated young artist’s projects. The Haydn that we performed, we had worked with some of the artists for three years, and some were making their first appearance with the company. Jacques Imbrailo is a singer we have worked with a lot over the years, and in fact he is on the most recent recording that we released in the Autumn, with a really intriguing Mozart piece called Grabmusik:

He wrote it just when he came back to Salzburg after his grand tour. The story behind it is that the Archbishop of Salzburg locked him in solitary confinement, because he thought this portfolio of compositions could not have been written without help from his dad, so he said, “You’re not to see anyone, and here’s a text – you set it – as a text!” We think this was the result, a cantata for bass and soprano. Jacques recorded that with us, and in my mind that, along with the first symphony, is what you want to wow someone with when you think of what Mozart did as a kid.”

Page is rightly proud of the young artists initiative, heartily endorsed as it is. “Jacques wrote a lovely testimonial for us recently, and he said about the first time he appeared with us, which was a Wigmore Hall concert, where he was sharing the stage with Philip Langridge, a hero of his. He said that nobody else was doing that where you can appear on level pegging with someone like that. And of course the Mozart is young music, it’s healthy in the same way that Handel is – the singers the composers were writing for had a life expectancy that was so much shorter. There are some staggering things, like the original Barbarina who as 12. Hamina was 17. What I find now we’ve been going long enough to reap the benefits of it. When we do have people like Allan Clayton or Jacques, it’s like an old friendship, and it might have been a couple of years but within five minutes there’s a shared language. It’s that much quicker to get to the nub of what we’re doing. If anything now we’re becoming more international and working with up and coming European talent.”

How does he discover the up and coming artists? “Sometimes I do hit a brick wall, especially if an opera is almost all cast, so it can be that the last role takes ages to fill up. When we did Figaro years ago we hadn’t cast the Figaro 6 months before, and I’d heard up to 20 people – and it was not until I flew to Sweden that we were able to fill it. To be fair now that we have a reputation a lot of the agents will come to us and suggest things. When we started out I went to every college opera but now I don’t have so much time. It’s quite lucky in a way not being Arts Council-funded, as we don’t have as much of an obligation. I’ll be quite selective about who I audition but when they do I will give them a good 45 minutes, and it’s not just about how they sing it’s about how intelligent they are, how they respond to direction. Ideally by the time we start rehearsals they are already those characters and that is usually a barometer.”

Their experiences are intriguing. “Sometimes it is a case of people having a sequence of bad experiences, not being treated very well! A good example is a tour we had to Italy around ten, twenty years back, where the bus didn’t turn up to take us to the venue. Instead of arriving there at 1 o’clock for lunch and a 2:30 rehearsal we arrived at 2:20. The orchestra went into this dark cloud, and nobody said anything! They had assumed they were not going to have any lunch that day because of the delay. It was such an eye opener that their assumption was that. Sometimes it is a bit of a battle to begin with because people are used to fighting their corner rather than collaborating. I do think the world is changing now though, with all the stuff coming out about bullying – it’s well overdue I think.”

Mozart is often highlighted as the most difficult composer to perform. Is that a statement to which Page would hold true? “Well Glyndebourne are doing this ‘Glyndebourne Cup’, every other year, and this time around they focussed on Mozart. They made a film called something like ‘Why Mozart is so difficult’ and I think that is immediately a disastrous starting point, you have to make it something positive to get away from the fear. I do love that Schnabel quote about Mozart about how it’s too easy for children and too difficult for adults. There is something not elusive but it’s a lifetime’s work. Every time I come back to the du Ponte operas there is always the feeling of how I did that last time, and was I really that stupid?!”

Is that the sign of a great work? “Yes, I think so”, he nods. “I remember when I first started out and for 18 months by chance I alternated for six months between Mozart and Britten operas. It was the most perfect complement, and with Verdi – it’s obviously great – but it’s so melody-led. With Mozart and Britten it is the synergy between text and emotion in the music which I love. There is something endlessly challenging about the Mozart operas but you need to think beyond them as difficult. The challenge is to be so immersed that you don’t realise how things are going. Bernstein talked about the act of performing as being the same as composing, and I think that is always the goal. We recorded Bastienne and I had already dismissed it, but when we recorded the dialogues we did something that made us laugh, and we thought we have to capture that on CD, or we lose the spirit of it! I haven’t had the first edit back yet but I’m hoping that comes across, the genuine feeling of people being happy and having fun. We’ve steered clear of the Mozart piano concertos so far, although we did well with Kristian Bezuidenhout last summer. I’ve got such a Perahia-like vision in my head so it is difficult to shift from that, but when you listen to Denis Mathews and Solomon it’s magical. It is not always a case of the more we evolve the closer we get to perfection!”