Classical: Happy Birthday Mozart, from Dittersdorf and Pergolesi

Classical Opera Company Royal College of Music London
WITH MOZART'S music being played daily all over the world, a birthday concert sounds like a dull adventure. So why not give the opposition a chance? Or ,more especially, those whose feeble light was dimmed by Mozart's genius?

Such logic partly inspired the Classical Opera Company's appearance at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre on the eve of the birthday, in an event that featured music by Dittersdorf and Pergolesi, as well as by Mozart himself. In the same venue last summer, the ensemble gave their operatic debut with his early Apollo and Hyacinthus. Since then, the theatre's become something of a home to this young, aspiring orchestra. Their authentic timbre of gut strings and reedy woodwind sounds well in its dry yet not unkind acoustic. So too, on Tuesday, did the voice of the actor Greg Wise, noted as Willoughby in the film of Sense and Sensibility, and here reading excerpts from the late Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid.

The first half's theme also took a mythical turn, with a Dittersdorf symphony, The Four Ages of Man, preceding a Pergolesi cantata, Orfeo, before it came to a quietly resounding end with the soprano Mary Plazas' account of the Mozart concert aria, "Ah, lo previdi". Granted, the band could just as well have unearthed some Mozartian rarities. But the contrast of these other works both refreshed the ear and pointed a moral: banality touches every age, and our standard view of the golden days of classical music may be as simplistic as the Ovidian ages of gold, silver, bronze and iron that Dittersdorf depicted. Iron proved of special interest; braying trumpets recalled high-energy Beethoven, but without a theme in sight. Pre-classical minimalism?

The cantata Orfeo, by contrast, was accomplished and cute, Plazas charting in firm melodic lines the tale of the songster from Thrace. Now almost forgotten save for his "Miserere", Pergolesi, who died even younger than Mozart, yet much more famous, was suavely talented; but his ideas scarcely compared with those of "Ah, lo previdi," where, in the closing aria, a consoling oboe lulled the voice to an acceptance of grief above a plucked accompaniment that bore the imperishable Mozart hallmark.

Likewise the Jupiter Symphony, the single item in the second half. The conductor Ian Page's thoughtful tempi made for a brisk yet never breathless first movement, and an andante relaxing at a speed that also gave point to the main theme's significant silences. Throughout, a semi-chorus of burbling oboes and bassoons was a strata of in-built comedy. That miraculous finale moved in every sense, propelled by the skill of these players and the kind of invention that placed the birthday hero way ahead of any rivals.