★★★★☆ AHE takes a sultry stroll through Boccherini’s nocturnal goings on.

Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney
March 19, 2017

Now in its sixth year, the Australian Haydn Ensemble has become something of a jewel in the national period instrument crown. A reputation for intriguing programming of the unfamiliar (or in this case the downright obscure) alongside better known fare makes an AHE concert one of the more pleasant ways to pass a sultry Sydney Sunday afternoon.

Of course, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and while sultry is perfect for conjuring the nocturnal atmosphere for Boccherini’s Madrid, it can play the very devil with gut strings. The result required increasingly frequent judicious retuning between movements, but skilful and sensitive playing on the part of all five players (Skye McIntosh and Caroline Hopson on violins, James Eccles on viola, and Anton Baba and Daniel Yeadon on cellos) ensured nothing too serious ever seemed amiss in an attractively diverse programme of works for string quintet.

The opener was one of Mozart’s lesser-known works, an arrangement of his Fantasy in F Minor for Mechanical Organ. Commissioned by a dilettante Viennese impresario to accompany a sort of cabinet of artistic curiosities, Anthony Albrecht’s excellent programme notes speculate that the organ in question was originally meant to complement an effigy of Field Marshall von Laudon, an Austrian military hero, displayed in a glass coffin. The brooding Adagio, full of daring harmonic ideas made full use of the weight of the ‘extra’ cello at the bottom end. The bustling Allegro seemed rather out of kilter with the glass coffin theory, but the quintet despatched it with a tangy enthusiasm before returning to the thought-provoking opening.

How you pick one out of the more than 150 string quintets on offer by Luigi Boccherini, heaven only knows, but his Op. 25 No 6 in A Minor isn’t a bad place to start. A work full of interest, its idea-packed opening Allegro non troppo was delivered with a sort of wistful haste, the violins engaging in playful games of chase, while the cellos alternated between soulful solos, melodic duets and a hint of a fandango rhythm that the composer just about keeps in check. The easy grace of the Minuet suited the AHE’s elegance down to the ground, while the spirited finale played into their ability to balance the lively with the serious minded – one of this thoughtful ensemble’s strong suits.

The second half kicked off with the String Quintet No 23 in G by Giuseppe Cambini. By who, do I hear you cry? A native of Livorno, Cambini was allegedly captured by pirates (!), eventually settling in Paris where he wrote over 600 instrumental works and 14 operas, one of which apparently even managed to steal Mozart’s thunder. Judging by the work on display here he’s worth a sticky beak. An amiable Allegro with some attractive writing for the cellos, particularly in their higher registers was followed by a lyrical, reflective Andante with a lovely central cello duet and a frolicking finale in a swift six-eight. The three substantial movements challenged the players to defy the pesky humidity, and on the whole they emerged with honour intact.

That left Boccherini’s famous Night Music of the Streets of Madrid as the big finish. Less of a string quintet and more like a late-Baroque suite, the work revels in imitative effects – everything from trumpets and drums to church bells and the strumming of guitars. The fearless five leapt in with all ten feet, from the nine plucked chimes that open the work to the approaching and receding tread of the night watch. Particularly appealing was the catchy, Scotch-snap filled minuet for the blind beggars (don’t ask!) which involved the cellists hoicking their instruments onto their laps for a good old strumming session. The pièce de réstistance, though, was the Passa Calle of the street-singers, which featured a beautifully played pizzicato waltz and some feverish divisions for violin and cello.

This was good music, fine playing and intelligent programming, and nicely presented by McIntosh who talked the audience through the concert to just the right degree. The AHE will feature works by Mozart, Haydn and Chevalier de Saint-Georges in June with the great fortepiano pioneer Melvyn Tan. Diaries out?