Bursting into life with JC Bach’s Symphony No 6 in G Minor on a wet and stormy Canberra evening, the Australian Haydn Ensemble (AHE) blew away the real-life storm happening outside with the drama and energy of the composer’s Sturm und Drang music.
Led by Erin Helyard at the fortepiano in a program inspired by the Enlightenment, with Artistic Director Skye McIntosh on violin, the horns of the AHE blasted out the powerful notes in the opening movement to drive the other instruments forward in this dramatic symphony.
The clarity and dynamic that the AHE create on their period instruments leaves no one in doubt that they are a world-class ensemble, and possibly one of the best looking.
Helyard gave the opening address after the Bach and spoke about the period instruments they play and how some are tricky to tune, being less stable than modern instruments. The process of getting the string instruments to align can be quite time consuming, but well worth the effort to create the effect they do.
The delicacies of Mozart were at once on display through the period instruments in his Piano Concerto No 12 in A Major. Despite its name, the fortepiano is not a loud instrument compared to its contemporary. Balancing the volume of this piano against an ensemble can be an art form in itself.
Helyard, who is also director of Pinchgut Opera, handled this balancing act well as did the ensemble. Neither overpowered one another, and the piano stood out with its unique tone when needed. Hearing the fortepiano and the ensemble in the old-world feel of the Albert Hall makes for a perfect combination of sound quality and musical experience.
The second Andante movement has a serene beauty. The piano shines in this movement with long trills and flowing notes of an introspective nature, while the chords seem to stand alone against the rest of the music. The “light and simple” final movement as the program said, “conceals cleverly hidden counter-melodies”, and a good degree of playfulness for the piano where Mozart gets to show off his talents, as did Helyard and the ensemble.
The short eight-minute Rondo for Piano and Orchestra K. 386 in A Major by Mozart began after the interval with a slight tuning problem for some in the strings, but this didn’t detract from this clever little piece. After Mozart’s death, this score was sold but missing the final page. Later, making its way to England, the ending was added by English composer Cipriani Potter. It all turned out to be another playful and showy work.
Haydn’s Symphony No 45, nicknamed ‘The Farewell’, has an interesting background story. The composer’s patron, the Hungarian Prince Nikolaus I Esterházy, had an estate in Eisenstadt. The musicians who spent long periods at the Esterházy country estate became frustrated at their time away from home and showed this in the final adagio. One by one they left the stage before the music ended leaving just two violinists on stage, which drove the point home to their master.
Well in tune for this symphony, the AHE with Helyard leading from the piano a performance full of vitality in their final concert for the year in Canberra.
The opening movement storms into action with energetic strings and plaintive woodwinds. The rhythm of the slow second movement stops and snaps at points creating a restless feeling and produces a tension, but all within the elegant surroundings of smooth and subtle passages.
The third movement had more of that snappy feel to it but this time with a greater variety of colours coming from individual sections like the brass and woodwinds. The presto final movement had more outstanding horn work as the strings bounced and rushed along. This complex movement is filled with some of Haydn’s best music. Its dynamic and at times unusual tempo variations led into an adagio that sounded like a totally new work.
As those musicians in the 1770s did, the AHE members left the stage one by one until there were just two violinists (McIntosh and Matthew Greco) left to play the final notes. But, along the way, they donned on hats and festive headdresses and some broke out the champagne while one walked down the aisle with her surfboard and another left with a beach ball.
They all returned to the stage in one long line to bow and receive their well-deserved applause in this sold out concert.
The Australian Haydn Eensemble’s Haydn’s Farewell has one more concert, at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 16