★★★½☆ A smart, musically rich programme played with passion.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
October 16, 2017

In the years following the advent of the printing press but before that of recorded sound, published arrangements of larger scale orchestral works for chamber ensembles became – like arrangements for piano four-hands – an important way of disseminating new music. Through these publications, those who couldn’t travel to hear a new symphony or overture by Mozart could explore it in a domestic setting, in smaller forces, with friends. It was this concept that HIP band Australian Haydn Ensemble embraced in their latest programme, Beethoven’s Emperor – a concept well suited to the intimate space of the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room.

The eight-piece ensemble kicked off the evening with Girolamo Masi’s 1800 arrangement of the Overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the stately opening – its grandeur slightly diminished in the smaller line-up – giving way to tight energy as the piece took off. The arrangement offered a different palette to that which contemporary audiences (enjoying the benefit of their easy access to recorded audio) are familiar with in this work – Melissa Farrow’s period classical flute colouring the edges of a sound rooted in strings and filled out harmonically by Neal Peres Da Costa’s fortepiano.

But while the line-up offered more limited options in terms of dynamic extremes than a full orchestra, the small forces allowed for an agile, chamber-music approach to rubato. The fugal moments were lean and spare, while Farrow and cellist Daniel Yeadon joined together in charming duet lines across the ensemble, the overall effect one of personable intimacy rather than symphonic bombast. Though there were some intonation issues that came and went earlier in the concert, they stabilised as the evening went on.

Giovanni Batista Cimador was responsible for the arrangement of Mozart’s Prague Symphony (K.504) at the other end of the programme. AHE’s Artistic Director, violinist Skye McIntosh led the band with a warm sound, the clockwork motoring of the first movement sparking off hints of the opera Don Giovanni (which, like the Prague Symphony, also premiered in 1787). Cimador’s arrangement seemed to favour more exposed single lines than that of Masi’s Overture, the texture becoming quite delicate at times. The musicians nonetheless infused it with a bold, vibrant energy in the first movement, before the Andante pulsed with graceful intensity, the crescendos throbbing and swelling. The finale had a light, bouncy momentum – McIntosh’s brilliant running passages adorned with popping flute notes – before ending the evening with a bang.

It was the chamber arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto The Emperor, however, that was the centrepiece of this programme, bookended by the Mozarts. Arranged for AHE by Vi King Lim and modelled on chamber arrangements of symphonies by Cimador and Masi, the Concerto is part of the ensemble’s Beethoven concerto cycle recording project.

Historical keyboard specialist Neal Peres da Costa delivered an adventurous performance, informed by his deep scholarship into period piano technique – his exploration of left-right hand dislocation adding a kind of textural ornamentation to his solos. While this chamber version of the work – heard so often in the Steinway and modern orchestra combination – allowed different harmonic nuances to rise to the surface, so too did the period instrument (a Paul McNulty copy of Conrad Graf’s Op. 318 from Castle Kozel in the Czech Republic) shine new light on what has become an oft-played (if enduringly beautiful) warhorse.

Peres Da Costa delivered glittering flourishes and crisp accents, the quick decay of notes (compared to the modern piano) giving an extra momentum and urgency to the performance. While there were a few technical rough edges, there were also sublime moments. The soul-tearing dream-like moments in the Allegro (given sometimes to haziness on a Steinway) had an exquisite, crystalline spark and clarity, and were worth the price of admission by themselves.

Peres Da Costa showed the fortepiano capable of remarkable power and majesty as well as subtlety, rumbling in the lower register and singing in the high. Soloist and ensemble were perfectly balanced throughout. Peres Da Costa brought a bell-like tone and sensitively shaped phrases to the Adagio before giving the snowballing transition to the Rondo finale an organic energy, the band’s tuttis full-throated and pizzicato bass stepping in for the timpani.

Overall this was a musically rich, fascinating programme by the AHE, delivered with verve and obvious passion, confirming the ensemble’s positions as one of the most interesting bands on the Sydney scene.


To donate to the Australian Haydn Ensemble’s Beethoven Concertos recording project with Neal Peres Da Costa, click here.