There aren’t many murder mysteries in the classical music world. Perhaps that’s why the legend of Mozart and Salieri—absurdly magnified and distorted by Peter Shaeffer’s play Amadeus and the subsequent hit movie—refuses to die. The idea that Antonio Salieri, insanely jealous of Mozart’s seemingly effortless genius, poisoned Mozart in the prime of his creative life, is one of those apocryphal parables that ought to be true even if it isn’t.
After all, if The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra stuck strictly to the facts of the case, it wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun as it did last night. In an entertaining program put together by visiting conductor Hans Graf, The SPCO played Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G Minor, written in 1773 when Mozart was seventeen, then followed it with Antonio Salieri’s Piano Concert in C, written that same year when Salieri was twenty-two years old. (One of the most egregious distortions of fact in Amadeus is that Salieri was significantly older than Mozart; he wasn’t.)
This side-by-side comparison was revealing mostly because it showed how comparatively well Salieri’s concerto holds up to Mozart’s adolescent effort, and how tight a grip their mutual mentor Joseph Haydn still had on both composers at that time.
Salieri’s Piano Concerto in C is one of the few Salieri works that has stood the test of time, partly because it sounds so remarkably Mozart-like. (If you think you can tell the difference, try taking this Mozart/Salieri quiz.) It is a competent, well-written piece of Viennese nostalgia, full of the lively trills and cascading scales one typically associates with Mozart and Haydn, and in the hands of Japanese pianist Rieko Aizawa, it got an extremely thoughtful and passionate airing.
The highlight of the evening came after intermission, however, with a humorous performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s mini-opera, Mozart and Salieri, featuring tenor Daniil Shtoda in the role of Mozart, and Russian bass extraordinaire Mikhail Svetlov as the envious, scheming Salieri.
It was the Russian poet Pushkin who first came up with the Salieri-killed-Mozart conceit, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s little opera is essentially a thirty-five-minute riff on the same idea.
Last night’s standout performance was turned in by Mikhail Svetlov, whose voice is so thick and rich that it ought to come with a calorie-warning label. Shtoda is an equally gifted tenor and, as the audience found out last night, he can play a mean piano too. (During the opera, Mozart plays some piano for Salieri, which leads Salieri to conclude that Mozart needs to die, albeit for the opposite reasons most people want to kill the piano player.)
All in all, it was an extremely entertaining evening of classical music, which is something one can’t always say. Tickets are still available for tonight’s show.