In the light of current knowledge, Antonio Salieri was a good-natured and generous man, Mozart’s patron and a gifted composer who fingered the same Viennese opera librettos as Mozart. Salieri’s 26 Variations on La Folia di Spagna is one of his finest compositions. This concert is hosted by violinist-conductor Thomas Zehetmair, who seems to find answers where other musicians don't even see questions.
Thomas Zehetmair (b. 1961) enjoys enviable international acclaim not only as a violinist, but also as a conductor and chamber musician. He has visited the HPO twice before, in 1989 and 2000. He divides his time evenly between the quartet bearing his name and conducting and is nowadays Artistic Partner of St. Paul’s Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota, Chief Conductor of the Musikkollegium Winterthur and Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. It must surely be difficult to find a more authentic Mozart interpreter, for he was born in Salzburg and studied at the world-famous Mozarteum. As both a violinist and a conductor, he has cherished the timeless freshness of the Mozart performance tradition handed down from one generation to the next. This is manifest both in his profound understanding of authentic styles and the fact that he has composed his own solo cadenzas for the Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn violin concertos, just as soloists did back in those masters’ day.
Zehetmair’s recording of the Mozart violin concertos with the Orchestra of the 18th Century conducted by Frans Brüggen is considered one of the best ever made.
Antonio Salieri: 26 La Folia di Spagna Variations
Despite the impression created by the film Amadeus, Antonio Salieri (1850–1825) was one of the most celebrated musicians of his day. His opera Axur alone was performed in Vienna over 100 times between 1788 and 1805 (no mean achievement at any time), and both Beethoven and Schubert consulted him over the setting of Italian words to music. The Folia di Spagna Variations (1815) were his last major work for orchestra. Dating from the 15th century, the folia was a quick dance to a tambourine accompaniment and was often incorporated in works for the stage. Contemporaries claimed that the dance was so named because it got faster and wilder towards the end, and those who danced it were declared “mad”. (Folia means ‘madness’ or ‘folly’.) Over the centuries, it underwent a transformation and merged with the slow Sarabande (follie d’Espagne). The distinctive feature of the late folia was a bass figure – also present in Salieri’s work – that lent itself to sets of variations by numerous 18th-century composers (such as Corelli, Marais and C.P.E. Bach).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major KV 216
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) joined the orchestra of the court of Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo of Salzburg as a violinist at the tender age of 13. His father, Leopold, was a fine violinist, taught him the violin and composition, and his Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing published in 1756 is still a major source of information on how music was performed at that time. Wolfgang composed his five violin concertos in Salzburg, most probably for his own use, though others at the court are known to have performed them, too. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a pioneer of research into the performance of early music, points out that the concertos were not particularly revolutionary, being more or less written in the prevailing idiom. Their most striking feature is, he says, the musical dialogue, which rests on great contrasts: light and shade, black and white. Though one of the great strengths of his music, this attracted criticism a few decades after Mozart’s death. Nowadays, contrast is accepted as a matter of course, but it was not so common at the time and listeners were shocked.
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61
Suffering from depression, insomnia, auditory hallucinations and anxiety in around 1843, Robert Schumann (1810–1856) could not settle to composition. He did, however, use the time to study the contrapuntal style of Bach. The fact that in September 1845 he felt ready to start work on a new symphony (No. 2, 1845–1847) was a sign of recovery, however slow. In true Romantic manner, the symphony heeded the contemporary established narrative of psychological development from suffering to salvation. The scholar Anthony Newcomb regards the symphony’s motivic development as the key to understanding Schumann’s expression. The opening bars immediately present the two elements (an upward leap on the brass over a smooth string figure) that will provide the basis for almost all the first movement’s thematic material, and the string figure will turn up again in the sporty scherzo. In the calm trio section of the scherzo Schumann alludes to Bach, both in style and in his use of the motif B–A–C–H. This motif will acquire a significant role again as the indicator of “musical salvation” in the finale