Mozart’s music has excellent and enviable social skills — that is one of its aesthetic values. At it’s best, it seeks to please not by pandering or being superficially agreeable, but by sincerely expressing charm, fluency, curiosity, empathy, humor and the display of common bonds. It is dignified but never stiff, it is witty and even vulgar in measures but never base — it has admirable poise every moment. It conveys a great deal more, of course, but it greets us with an almost effervescent pleasure with our company and the desire to show us great and wonderful things about it and the world. Mozart’s masterpieces would be the honored guest at a dinner party who makes us laugh, fascinates us with dramatic tales of conflict and resolution, praises the host and the cooking extravagantly and honestly, never drinks too much, turns boorish or stays too long after desert and coffee.
Some of his greatest music is the opera “Idomeneo,” his first mature opera. The story is of the King of Crete, Idomeneo, saved from shipwreck by Neptune and pledged to sacrifice the first person he sees in tribute. The first person he see is, tragically, his son Idamante, himself involved in a love triangle with Ilia and Elettra. The themes of duty and love are consistently important in the composer’s career and were personally deeply appealing. These themes are always best explored in his operas, and “Idomeneo” does that spectacularly, musically. While it is not his greatest opera, his greatest combination of written and musical drama, the more I listen to it the more I feel it is his greatest on a purely musical basis, beyond that even of “Le Nozze di Figaro” or “Die Zauberflote.” The music is ravishing and transporting, the vocal line and accompaniment unceasingly involving, dramatic, surprising, compelling and inventive. Good opera writing requires that the music convey the drama of the tale and the text, that it differentiation moods, moments and especially characters, and in “Idomeneo” Mozart does this with indescribable brilliance and success. The music so clearly defines each character, and so clearly describes their emotional states (this includes the music for the chorus), that a sensitive listener with no knowledge of the plot or Italian is still left with a good idea of the shape and resolution of the opera. Beyond conquering that daunting technical challenge, the music is great in the ear and the heart; the love music charms, the ballads weep, the storms terrify and angers rage. In a form made for the stage and only infrequently an unqualified success in audio format, this is an ideal opera for listening again and again.
And so the new recording from conductor René Jacobs is welcome. Jacobs is a former singer who has become and excellent and important Early Music scholar and leader, and has already produced outstanding recordings of “Figaro,” “La Clemenza di Tito,” “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni,” the last two the best Early Music style recordings of those operas. His methods are a contrast to the other leading Early Music conductor of Mozart operas, John Eliot Gardiner; Jacobs tends towards a smaller, intimate sound and takes far greater liberties with the score than Gardiner, who favors a a bigger sound with more edge and drive and is consistently concerned with discerning the fundamental goals of the score and emphasizing them. These are gross generalizations, of course, with many exceptions, but the two conductors do produce different work and it is a strength of the Early Music approach that they both fit the philosophies of the movement and succeed in their music-making. Gardiner has already made an absolutely tremendous recording of “Idomeneo,” and so it is appropriate to discuss this new one on that basis.
Both feature deep rosters of excellent singers (as does the best of the ‘normal’ recordings, Sir Charles MacKerras’ set on EMI with a luxury cast that includes Ian Bostridge, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Lisa Milne); Gardiner’s leads are Anthony-Rolfe Johnson ad Anne-Sophie von Otter and Sylvia McNair, while Jacobs uses Richard Croft in the lead role, Bernarda Fink as Idamante, Sunhae Im as Ilia and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as an astonishing Elettra. It’s a great credit to all three recordings that the trouser-role of Idamante, which asks of our modern sensibilities a self-consciously willful suspension of disbelief, is natural and easily acceptable. On all three recordings, the singers execute the music with great skill and beauty and convey the characters well — although Mozart must again be given credit for music that so clearly and powerfully conveys all the characters’ mercurial thoughts and feelings. The character’s arias convey an enormous range of emotion, all in the most natural sounding music; “Fuor del mar” expresses a balance between thanks and anguish, the music for the famous quartet “Andro ramingo e solo” fits together beautifully while the characters themselves are full of doubts and conflicts, and the chorus “Corriamo, fuggiamo” is a powerfully effective expression of terror.
What distinguishes this set is Jacobs approach to the score. The simplistic way to characterize Early Music performance practice is to stress issues of tempo, i.e. everything is played much faster than in more common, standard approaches. That is broadly true but also misleading. Jacobs overture is not only slower than Gardiner’s, but also considerably slower than Peter Maag’s recording. Elsewhere, Jacobs presses tempos faster. He seems to be making these decisions based on the musical material itself, and what it is trying to convey. Elettra’s arias are an example; she is unhinged by jealous fury in “Tutte nel cor vi sento” and “D’Oreste, d’Aiace,” and the music is played at just the edge of hanging together. It’s effective and exciting. Jacob’s smaller ensemble, the Freiburger Barockorchester, allows this, and it’s another interpretive choice. He pares down the number of strings — there are only a dozen violins — and produces a sound that is closer to chamber music, with a complex blend of brittle, woody and throaty colors. He also has a lighter approach to phrasing than both standard practice and Gardiner; the string articulations are gentle, especially in the initial attack of notes, and there is a tendency towards greater legato playing, even in passages marked staccato. If you feel that all of Mozart’s art aspire to singing and that the proper approach to playing his music is to emphasize a cantabile quality — and I feel this way — then this is an ideal concept.
What makes this recording extraordinary are the recitatives, and the conductor’s conception for how they should be played. The score indicates predominantly sustained long tones under the vocal part, and most conductors, including Gardiner, present this straight and unembellished in the strings. Jacobs first augments the recitatives with a fortepiano and then uses the score to indicate the harmonic structure for improvised continuo accompaniment of the singers. On the Gardiner recording, the recitative for Idomeneo and Arbace that opens the second act begins with a sustained chord in the strings, while the Jacobs recordings presents an improvised fantasia on the fortepiano. The difference is startling, as if one is hearing something that is no longer Mozart’s opera, but that is because of what has been a 100 years-long and inappropriate approach to music like this. As Jacobs writes in the booklet notes:
“The instrumental accompaniment of the recitativi semplici calls for improvising continuo players with an unceasing flow of ideas and a strong feeling for style. It is nonsense to think that Mozart himself, an improviser of genius, would have played only ‘dry’ chords when accompanying recitative, that he would not have ‘commented’ on the action from time to time as the strings and wind do in orchestrally accompanied recitatives, that he would not have played a prelude at the start of an important recitative if he wanted to, and as the fortepianist in our recording dares to do at the beginning of the second act by paraphrasing the end of the overture.”
He is not merely making a willful assertion, he is conveying an important truth about the composer, the era and music itself. The distinction between improvised and composed music is artificial and meaningless. Composed music, better understood as notated music, is improvised music that has been fixed at a moment in time and development by some kind of recording process, whether paper or cylinder of magnetic tape. It is a record of a moment meant to convey information past the immediate vicinity of the composer, and also, often, to maintain a record of information which the composer may further manipulate. It is also, from the composer’s standpoint, improvisation — it begins as such and remains so, even when recorded. Someone is making it up in the moment, and many great composers were also great improvisers and musicians had to be able to improvise. This was lost, for complex reasons, in the 20th century, but is now returning thanks to musicians like Jacobs and Alfred Brendel (who, for example, adds judicious and idiomatic improvisation to his recording of the Mozart piano concerto K. 488, which the composer would have expected of any decent performer).
While this approach will jar some listeners, it gives great life and excitement to the music even beyond what Mozart left us in the score’s pages. What Jacobs is doing is arguably the most appropriate approach, a way of performing the music that fits as closely to what Mozart would have known and expected in his day. Those are very different ideas than what we are used to in listening to recordings of the past several generations. It is unfamiliar and characterful — the primary focus is on conveying the character of the music, rather than the notes themselves — and so is perhaps less immediately accessible, but it rewards repeated listening. There is a real sense of human drama beyond the musical drama, which makes the effect intimate and a bit disarming. It really demands to be seen on stage — the opera concludes with a ballet and Jacobs leads the music with a strict sense of dance, with clear and slightly stiff separation between the style of dance and tempo in each of the sections. Gardiner, on the other hand, plays the music in a more symphonic way, making it a complete work, a kind of large-scale reverse overture that musically wraps up the entire work. It makes for more satisfying listening which succeeds because we are experiencing a recording, not witnessing and actual performance. His overall approach is large scale, with every recitative, aria and chorus integrated into an overall line and conception, and he makes it work. Jacobs is working his way from the bottom up, from inside the characters and out, so musically his recording is a bit choppy and more vivid. It is an ideal complement to Gardiner’s set, and together they make wonderful bookends to this wonderful opera (the Jacobs CD box comes with a forty-five minute documentary on the making of the recording).