My heart goes out to Antonio Salieri. For the past few decades, he’s been best known as “that guy who had Mozart killed,” thanks to the film version of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. So, I’ll start with this: Amadeus is a work of fiction. Salieri did not have Mozart killed. And, while he may well have harbored some jealousy toward Mozart’s breathtaking genius, Salieri himself had an admirably successful musical career. A couple of recent recordings serve as a reminder that he was a highly accomplished and prolific composer.
The Italian-born Salieri (1750-1825) joined many of the greatest musicians of Europe in making Vienna his headquarters. There he studied with the brilliant and innovative opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. Through that esteemed connection, Salieri was appointed director of Italian opera for the Habsburg court. In fact, he often directed and conducted his own operas, of which he wrote 37. At the time, Italian was considered by many to be the only acceptable language for opera; hence the eyebrows raised at Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with its libretto in German. It should be noted that, thanks to his experience under the cosmopolitan and multi-lingual Gluck, Salieri also wrote some operas in French.
Although he wrote mostly instrumental music, it is Salieri’s operas and other vocal music that have long received the most studio attention. Most recently, there is a new recording of the opera Armida, an early work, dating from 1771, when the composer was only 21. Lully’s and Handel’s versions of the Armide story – it comes from Torquato Tasso’s hugely influential 16th-century epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered – are better known today, but Salieri’s opera seria would have been at the height of fashion, and was probably well received in 1771 Vienna.
Now, for the first time, you can hear a recording of the whole thing, thanks to Christophe Rousset’s longtime fascination with Salieri (he and his instrumental ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, previously recorded two of the composer’s French-language operas, Tarare and Les Horaces). For this Armida recording on the Aparté label, Rousset tapped some fine Classical-era specialists to fill the four solo parts: soprano Lenneke Ruiten in the title role; mezzo-soprano Teresa Iervolino as Armida’s maid, Ismene; soprano Florie Valiquette as Rinaldo, the Christian knight; and baritone Ashley Riches as a fellow knight, Ubaldo. The choral sections are handled by the excellent Chœur de Chambre de Namur.
As in all the operatic versions, Salieri’s is a Crusades story in which Armida, an Eastern sorceress, lures Christian soldiers to her island, where she slaughters them, until one day she faces Rinaldo and finds him just too gorgeous to kill. It’s not easy to find information about the Italian libretto by Marco Coltellini, but Les Talons Lyriques has generously provided some clear, helpful resources on its website, including a synopsis.
Gluck’s influence can be heard in any random track (interestingly, Gluck himself did not attempt to set the Armide story as an opera until after his student had done so). In this Act III aria for Ubaldo, in which the knight wonders at the hellish creatures on the sorceress’ island, Salieri’s orchestral writing bursts with rhythmic and harmonic energy. The vocal line includes both arching melodies and vigorous ornamentation, which Riches at times handles with more enthusiasm than control.
As Armida, Ruiten provides an impassioned performance, by turns wild and reflective. The timbre of her extreme upper range brings to mind Maria Callas. In this aria, with help from the chorus, Rousset’s band again provides the perfect emotional drive.
My plan at this point in my column was to talk about Falstaff, a work completed in 1799, almost 30 years after Armida. It was categorized at the time as a dramma giocoso, or comedy, as one would expect given that it’s based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. I should say loosely based on it, since Salieri leaves out some of the play’s major plot arcs in this short work, in collaboration with his librettist, Carlo Prospero Defranceschi.
My plan did not work out. I usually use this column to highlight new recordings, but a situation I came upon in the Salieri catalog is so grimly fascinating that I think it’s worth a short digression as an illustration of how the music industry has changed in this digital age.
There seemed to be a new recording of Falstaff, but the more I researched the purported 2021 release on VDC Classique with Simone Perugini conducting the Fête Galante Baroque Orchestra and featuring Irving Hussain as Falstaff, the more astonished I became. Consensus is that here is no such recording! Never mind that you can listen to it on YouTube or buy it on CD on Amazon; it is widely agreed among hardcore Salieri fans that Perugini himself might not even exist, nor do any of the singers on this recording.
It is, in the opinion of multiple experts, a “rip” of a 1980s Hungaroton recording with Tamas Pal conducting and Jószef Gregor in the title role. By this I mean that the digital file of the old recording has been manipulated slightly (down a quarter tone here, up 15 beats per minute there) and called “new.” Evidence suggests that “Simone Perugini,” or whatever entity that name represents, has done this with other pieces as well, including some operas by Domenico Cimerosa, apparently made by altering multiple pre-existing recordings.
This type of digital fraud is surely illegal, but it would require that whoever currently owns the Hungaroton recording invest in a legal fight, which seems unlikely to happen (and against whom would it be waged?). The least I can do is point you to Pal’s original recording of Falstaff, a delightful and elegant reading, available on Spotify:
Happily, there is another new Salieri album I can report on with confidence: Salieri: Strictly Private (on the trustworthy Haenssler Classic label). Musicologist and conductor Timo Jouko Herrmann (he’s real!) leads the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra in some instrumental movements and songs from Salieri’s chamber cantatas, secular and sacred works composed for private events at the Habsburg court. The (very real) singers here include soprano Diana Tomsche, mezzo-soprano Esther Valentin, tenor Thomas Jakobs, and baritone Philipp Schädel, among others.
With a dexterous, fluid voice, Tomsche leads a German translation of “La preghiera sudditta (Gott! Erhalt’ zu unsrer Wonne)” for soprano and chorus, a number influence by Lutheran chorales, proving that Salieri had thoroughly studied the masters of previous generations.
Antonio Salieri was a gifted composer and sought-after teacher who created hundreds of beautiful works in the early days of the mature classical style. There is no reason for his legacy to be tarnished or for him to be reviled or pitied. And his output certainly deserves to be more than a footnote to a fictionalized biopic of Mozart.
Header image: portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler.