Imagine a time before recorded music. No Spotify, no CDs. No cassettes or LPs. No radio. How could composers get their works heard more broadly? How could people listen to, say, the symphonies of Beethoven or the grand serenades of Mozart without leaving home? The Australian Haydn Orchestra’s second concert for 2021 explored some of the arrangements created to allow amateur musicians to recreate large-scale works in a domestic setting.

Melissa Farrow, Skye McIntosh and Matthew Greco, Australian Haydn Ensemble. Photograph © Oliver Miller

Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Serenade, for instance, a rangy and sometimes raucous series of dances and marches, was written as incidental music for the wedding of his patron’s daughter, Elizabeth Haffner, in 1778. The original version features generous helpings of drums and trumpets, perfect for creating a sense of occasion and cutting through a lively party hubbub. The version played here was an arrangement by 18th-century musician and architect Girolamo Masi intended for chamber performance. Actually, it was an arrangement of an arrangement: during her research, AHE Artistic Director Skye McIntosh discovered that Masi had interpolated new material, either by himself or someone else, but certainly not Mozart, into the final movement. McIntosh, in collaboration with research partners Emma Scolaro and Vi King Lim, proposed a third, partially de-Masified and re-Mozarted version. The result? An ebullient and idiomatic ‘Haffner’ Serenade, full of the courtly spring of the style galant, but without the heft of an outdoor band.

Meanwhile, English violist William Watts was using the same ensemble – string sextet and flute – in his arrangement of Beethoven’s much-loved Symphony No 6 in F major, Op. 68, the ‘Pastoral’. Australian Haydn Ensemble gave an excellent performance of it, filling the hall with an orchestral sound spun from single voices.

Watts was a colleague and good acquaintance of Beethoven, and largely responsible for bringing Beethoven’s music to London and the UK. His arrangement is brilliant, revealing the underlying contours of the work and using ingenious voicings to recreate Beethoven’s programmatic passages. A solo viola, for example, sounded uncannily like a clarinet dropping a throaty ‘cuckoo’ into the bird’s chorus, while double bass and cello provided the thundery groundwork for a dramatic storm.  And from the reassuring warmth of the ensemble sound, each of the seven players emerged as a virtuoso in their own right, tackling the irrepressible invention of Beethoven’s variations on a theme.

The concert opened with Boccherini’s String Sextet in F minor, Op. 23 No 4, the only work on the program played in its original form. The dark harmonies and hushed melodies proved to be too intimate, too inward-looking for a concert hall, and the florid ornamentation of the first violin disappeared almost before it could be heard, like the winding smoke from a snuffed out candle.

Beethoven’s Pastoral plays in Tamworth on 9 June, Western Sydney on 13 June and Lake Macquarie on 20 June

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter