Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
August 11, 2018

Bathed in soft, golden light, the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room felt particularly cosy and intimate on Saturday evening for the Australian Haydn Ensemble’s Schubert Songs, the creaking from the Man O’ War Wharf adding to the haunting ambience stoked by a concert shot-through with the spectre of death.

Australian baritone David Greco was master of ceremonies, guiding the audience through a program that saw Schubert’s songs interspersed with movements from Félicien David’s 1837 Les Quatre Saisons – a set of 24 miniature string quintets – giving the evening a pleasant, cabaret feel, backed by the small period instrument band. Violinist Simone Slattery led the quintet (replacing Skye McIntosh, who withdrew due to a family bereavement), with Rafael Font on violin, James Eccles on viola, James Bush on cello and Jacqueline Dosser on double bass. While the slated Rosamunde Quartet was cut, this was nonetheless a rich and satisfying concert.

Greco was a charming host, weaving the stories behind Schubert’s lieder – both their own narratives and the social and political environment in which they were composed – into his performance. He opened the concert with Schubert’s Die Götter Griechenlands, his rich baritone filling the space snugly and his diction clear and articulate, before David’s Les Quartre Saisons No 1 Soirée d’ete extended the mood of Schubert’s song (or at least the mood of the lost idyll it nostalgically depicts) with a warm gypsy energy.

Greco’s deep, rounded timbre as Death in Der Jüngling und der Tod had an irresistible pull, with Vi King-Lim’s string arrangement (he arranged all of the songs to correlate with the David instrumentation) shining a light on the folk music elements in Schubert’s writing.

With a new Winterreise disc (with Erin Helyard) hitting the shelves in September, Greco cherry-picked three songs to perform in an abbreviated cycle – Gute Nacht, Frühlingstraum and Der Leierman. These were detailed performances against the dark strings of the quintet, with a dramatic surge on the “Was soll ich langer weilen” (Why should I tarry here) of Gute Nacht and violent intrusions into the brightness of Frühlingstraum. The string arrangement made for a gritty, hurdy-gurdy drone in Der Leiermann, Greco’s eyes lighting up with mad affection on “Wunderlicher Alter” (Curious old man) before the devastating final couplet. These were exciting performances and although there is room to grow between now and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s minimum Winterreise age of 45, Greco makes a compelling argument for it being a “young person’s cycle”.

Mirroring the Der Jüngling und der Tod was Der Tod und das Mädchen, Greco delivering Death’s lines here with a benedictory grace.

Interspersed throughout were the movements from Les Quatre Saisons – No 6, Soirée de printemps, No 5 Soirée d’automne following the earlier Soirée d’ete – employed not so much as palate cleansers but binding Schubert’s songs into a unified experience that flowed from beginning to end.

Racing strings from the quintet gave Der Erlkönig a thrilling urgency, Greco’s sound shiny and seductive as the Erlking in an exciting finale, before bringing the evening to a close with Schubert’s An die Musik as an encore.

The AHE strings brought a folky, vibrant energy to these performances that made for great listening. While there were some moments when entries or intonation weren’t immaculate, this was nonetheless engaging playing, the instrumentalists feeding off Greco’s energy and charisma in a very satisfying concert.

David Greco’s recording of Winterreise is out on ABC Classics on September 7. He tours to Canberra and Newcastle Music Festival with the Australian Haydn Ensemble until August 17

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