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Review of Academy of Ancient Music’s Command Performance: Music for an Empress

The Academy of Ancient Music began its new season at West Road Concert Hall with the first of a variety of concerts on European themes, taking as its inaugural subject the Empress Maria Theresa and her many cultural connections.

The upbringing of this remarkable figure, ruler of a swathe of central European territories, including Austria, was surrounded by the compositional talent and musical performers of her day.

Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Ben Ealovega
Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Ben Ealovega

Maria Theresa was the eldest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and Vienna itself, in the very middle of what was left of the Holy Roman Empire, was a cauldron of different cultures.

After a troubled commencement to her sovereignty, due to the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), the musical life of Vienna revived and the Empress, a generous musical patron, went on to celebrate, encourage and support musicians of the time. She left behind a legacy of cultural activity which was represented in Wednesday’s concert by Laurence Cummings with the Academy of Ancient Music, celebrating its 50 years Golden Anniversary this year (2023-24).

AAM performed music, some by composers well-known, and some by names less so. Of the 106 symphonies of Haydn we heard No. 48 in C Major named for the Empress herself. Once thought (mistakenly) to have been written in 1773 for performance during a visit by Maria Theresa to the Esterhazy Palace (the seat of Haydn’s most important patron), it may in fact have been performed before her at another time.

The symphony’s assertive start develops towards an elegant adagio full of interesting pauses, then to something of a serious-toned menuetto, but concluding with a finale full of joie de vivre, its melodies chasing one another with some very lively and engaging string playing.

In the opinion of AAM’s wind player Leo Duarte at the pre-concert talk, this ‘Maria Theresa’ symphony of Haydn has among the highest parts he knows for horns and oboes. The wind section (2 horns, trumpet, oboe and bassoon) was certainly very impressive in its role.

The Empress had first heard Mozart play for her in 1762, and when he returned to Vienna in 1768 he had completed (three days previous to his audience with her), his Symphony No.7 in D Major. Unfortunately, because there was no orchestra present at the occasion, the Symphony (K.45) was not performed. AAM made up for this by playing it for us, and it is certainly an impressive achievement for a 12 year old.

It’s customary to emerge from an AAM concert a little wiser (more often a lot wiser) than one went in. Two names rose up from amidst the riches of the period covered by the proceedings. The evening began and concluded with work by Maria Theresa Agnesi (not to be confused with the Empress) from her opera La Sofinisba (1748). This apparently is the first and earliest surviving opera seria written by a woman.

Licenza is a paean to the Sovereign, a dedicatory recitative in which, although she honours the Empress, Agnesi also celebrates her own name day in the process. She was unique in her time as being recommended to the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna which had never admitted a woman previously to its institution.

The Licenza would normally have been performed at the end of the opera, but in this concert roles were reversed and the evening concluded with one of La Sofinisba’s arias. Both works were sung incomparably by award-winning and rising star of the opera world, the outstanding soprano Alexandra Lowe.

Another musically talented woman, both as accomplished singer and keyboard virtuoso, supported by the Empress and often summoned to play for her, was Marianna Martines who had taken music lessons from Haydn.

We heard an operatic scene from an opera Antigono (a setting of which is by Haydn) and in which Martines had possibly sung. Alexandra Lowe exemplified the combination of passion and strenuousness the part required, and which pointed to the accomplishment Martines herself must have possessed had she performed such a role.

A recently discovered manuscript of a work by Martines, a Concerto in E major written by its composer at the age of 22, was delivered with true virtuosity by Laurence Cummings, playing and conducting from the harpsichord. The exquisite andante, a kind of fantasia, was especially memorable among the concerto’s three movements.

At the pre-concert talk Cummings suggested that whereas this keyboard concerto might equally have been played on the fortepiano, there were interwoven delicacies of various kinds in the music to which only the harpsichord (and this seems to have been clearly understood by Martines) could give expression.

AAM performed the Sinfonia from Ruggiero by celebrated opera composer Johann Adolf Hasse, attached to which is a touching story. Hasse was one of the Empress’s favourite composers whose first opera had been written in 1726 in celebration of her 9th birthday. Ruggiero was his final opera (1771) and written at the Empress’s request towards the end of her life. It marked the inevitable march of time as a new operatic style by Christoph Willibald Gluck had by that stage displaced the style of Hasse and his librettist associates.

A highlight of the evening was Alexandra Lowe’s delivery of the overwhelmingly lovely aria ‘Non vi turbate’ from Gluck’s opera Alceste. The exquisite purity of her voice had the rapt attention of a stilled audience.

So much remains to be discovered and enjoyed, and this is the mission behind AAM’s themed seasons. At the pre-concert talk chaired by musicologist Katie Hawks, 3 members of the ensemble, Laurence Cummings, Leo Duarte and Gabriella Jones shared opinions on how such music from a bygone era might be approached.

Composers, enormously popular in their time such as Hasse and Gluck (and there are many others), are now not given as much recognition as they perhaps deserve.

Equally, it wasn’t that women composers and performers were thought of as less talented than their male counterparts, or that there was a shortage of them. We have to imagine the world they played in, and the trio addressed examples of how this imagining needs to be exercised in the process of understanding that world.

So much wonderful music has been lost, ignored, misjudged. Laurence Cummings had got ‘quite cross’, he said, when Katie Hawks read from Grove’s Dictionary a faint disparagement of Marianna Martines’ contribution to music.

The flawless performances of AAM, along with their beautiful accompanying programme notes, their recordings and their valuable research, are in the vanguard of those who are also making it their life’s work to recover and reveal what has for so long been regrettably overlooked or simply forgotten.


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