Feature Review – English Haydn Festival 2007

Written by: Antony Hodgson

Antony Hodgson takes a trip to the delightful town of Bridgnorth in Shropshire for the English Haydn Festival 2007, which took place from 25 May to 2 June…

Joseph Haydn: Portrait by Thomas Hardy, 1792

The English Haydn Festival has taken place annually since 1993. Its mentor, H C. Robbins Landon, wrote about it with huge enthusiasm in his autobiography “Horns in High C” (Thames and Hudson, 1999). He used to attend each year, but in recent times his doctors have not permitted him to do so. Nevertheless, the organisers under the direction of John Reid (also the leader of the excellent resident orchestra) ensure its continued success – and I know from experience how pleased are the traders in this delightful small town at the annual influx of visitors.

The main concerts at this Festival take place in St Leonard’s Church, at the highest part of the High Town in Bridgnorth; the conversion of the church and the carefully constructed platforms make this an attractive venue. This year celebrated “Late Composers of the Haydn Century” and, very properly, Haydn himself seemed to appear more frequently than in some previous festivals. A good gauge is the number of symphonies performed – nine this time as opposed to six last year. This makes an average of one symphony per festival day. Still, I could happily accept more.

The artists’ roster was also similar. Iain Sutherland has conducted frequently in the past and he opened the Festival with an interestingly-programmed concert featuring Haydn’s 57th and 79th symphonies. Why, I thought, should 57 with its fuller scoring, including timpani, be played at the start rather than the end of the concert? We soon found out: the scoring was not fuller because the timpani part was omitted! There seems no justification for this. True, it was not at first found with the original 1774 autograph; nevertheless, only a few years later the part, which Robbins Landon has seen and believes to be authentic, was included in an edition published by Breitkopf. An excellent modern edition of the score was then published in 1963 by Universal Edition, Vienna and it included the part (which was found in Ebiswald and is dated 1779), the editor being Landon himself. I think we had better not tell him what happened at this performance! Struggling to justify the decision to omit the drums, I suppose it could be claimed that the performance represented what might have been heard in the late 1770s, before the part was rediscovered and published.

Ronald Brautigam

In the following Haydn Piano Concerto in D (the one with the Gypsy Rondo) Ronald Brautigam went for brilliance and it worked – especially in the finale, which responded to his fierce, racing tempo. Not all fortepianos are of excellent quality, but Brautigam’s model has ideal clarity and evenness. Usually performances of this work leave the listener wishing a harpsichord had been used, but Brautigam was fully convincing. A similar brilliance did not, however, suit Mozart’s F major Concerto (K459): there were moments of unphrased orchestral playing that sometimes disagreed with the treatment of the identical melodies as shaped by the pianist. A decent performance of Symphony 79 ended the concert; well-chosen tempos were employed but the slow movement was rather unfeeling.

Reviewing last year’s Festival, I mentioned Iain Sutherland making uncomfortable tempo shifts at the start of trio sections in minuets. This year there were no such quirks; in fact he deserves particular praise for not letting the tempo become uncertain at such a point in his performance of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony on the second night. Few conductors seem content simply to play what Schubert wrote here. I wish I could praise this performance more because the speeds were so well chosen, but there was a lack of mystery, the dark shadows of the slow movement were barely hinted at and the dynamics had little contrast. Haydn 101 (the Clock) was more enjoyable, with excellent tempos again but this time the lack of contrast could be the fault of the timpani – maybe because they were placed to one side or maybe because the player (not the one named in the programme) felt that she did not need to make dramatic points. Whatever the reason, the whole part seemed underplayed. Full marks for the clear woodwind at the end of the first movement however – these can so often get lost. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano concerto had ended the first half. Brautigam gave an interesting reading, sometimes rushing certain phrases – a sort of decoration by tempo-change. It was interesting to hear the piano slightly submerged, especially in passagework, but then I don’t think Beethoven intended these sections to be heard as forcefully as is often the case with modern instruments. There were moments, however, when the orchestra played melodies solidly and soberly but as soon as the soloist got hold of them, they took off at surprising pace.

Colin Lawson, Director of RCM

The Sunday evening concert found Colin Lawson (Director of the Royal College of Music) in charge. In previous years he has proved himself a searching conductor. He is also a clarinettist, and here combined both talents, commencing with Haydn’s rarely played but delightful Symphony 55 (The Schoolmaster). Tempos were well-chosen and the orchestra played with confidence. Jeremy Ward then tamed his baroque bassoon to give a beautifully phrased performance of Mozart’s Concerto. The unhurried speeds were ideal and the sparing but telling decorations stylishly judged. In the second half of the concert Colin Lawson directed a noble reading of Haydn’s Symphony 92 (Oxford). Full marks for the conductor’s refusal to rush the loud major-keyed sections of the slow movement; texturally, though, the sound was disappointing. As with Symphony 101 the night before, at no time did the timpani give more than solid support. It is strange that they should have been played using soft-headed sticks. Not only did these instruments fail to make their proper impact, they also clouded the inner orchestral textures. Perhaps because of this, the dynamics seemed restrained – none of Haydn’s several sudden forte attacks made much impact. The concert ended on a more enlivening note with Colin Lawson as both soloist and conductor in Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto. Here was great control, much brilliance and delightful melodies. Yes, Weber is a late composer of the ‘Haydn century’, yet his instrumental music incorporates the very essence of high spirits that Haydn so often represents.

Anthony Halstead gave two concerts this year and was provided with the opportunity to exploit his sense of drama, The brief but remarkable Symphony 26 (Lamentatione) was powerfully interpreted. 26 is misleadingly early; this work belongs nearer to the later ‘Sturm und Drang’ period and is contemporary with symphonies 39 and 49. Although a harpsichord was, unfortunately, not available, Halstead compromised by correctly adding bassoon to the continuo line and was still able to convey the fierceness of the dramatic opening movement (which is inspired by a Medieval passion play). The Adagio employs the same poignant melody (derived from early plainchant setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah) that Haydn was to re-use in Symphony 80 and which so beautifully darkens Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. Here the conductor’s tempo was faster than usual but the even flow somehow added to the gravity of this searching music and it also permitted both repeats to be made without the music seeming overlong. The severe minuet also responded to the firmly driven tempo.

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom Miller

All this dark drama came as a strong contrast to Steven Isserlis’s brilliant and spectacularly accurate reading of Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto. The finale represented a tremendous tour de force and the orchestra, playing at its best, held to Halstead’s daringly fast tempo with great skill. After the interval, Mozart’s Symphony 29 was given a cool clean-cut reading (again with the luxury of bassoon continuo – so often ignored) and I was impressed by Halstead’s stylish reading of Mozart’s ornaments and grace notes in the first movement (strangely the conductor from the past best noted for coping properly with this feature was Otto Klemperer). The firm repetitive strings-against-wind phrases in the Minuet were handled with firmness and the horns had a field day in the finale. Haydn’s neglected, immensely tuneful Symphony 65 ended the concert; as in the Mozart, the horns are in the high key of A, and the instrumentalists coped gallantly with the composer’s demands.

As if those demands on the horns had not already been serious enough, Anthony Halstead gave a concert two days later featuring the spectacular Symphonies 31 and 72 (again the numbering is confusing: No.31 is given approximately correct chronology but 72 is exactly contemporaneous). In both works Haydn requires four horns and they have brilliant concertante parts, as indeed do the leaders of other sections of the orchestra (even the double bass). All the soloists acquitted themselves with great credit and these lengthy symphonies held the interest from beginning to end. No.31 (Hornsignal) is the better-known of the two but the pattern is the same and both end with a variation movement featuring solo instruments. These works effectively sandwiched two horn concertos – Haydn’s in D major and Mozart’s Second. Although much earlier, the Haydn is probably the more demanding of the two; Roger Montgomery played both with great aplomb. It is fascinating to note the care with which Mozart carefully selects his use of ‘stopped’ notes, i.e. those that can only be achieved on the natural horn by use of hand-stopping. The changed quality of these notes gives an entirely different feel to the music when compared with performances on modern instruments.

John Moore, Director of Music at Shrewsbury School and a noted choral conductor gave a fascinating midweek talk on the subject of Charles Burney – musicologist, diarist and one-time pupil at Shrewsbury. Moore concentrated on London musical life, in particular during Haydn’s visits in the 1790s. His enthusiasm for the period carried the audience forward with him in creating pictures of this bygone age. Moore’s musical talents were shown in the final concert where the main work was Haydn’s “Harmoniemesse” (the last of the six great post-London masses). The concert began with a performance of the Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony that I found disappointing: there was a failure to illuminate dramatic moments. This, together with the use of a rather limited dynamic range, made the music merely warm and comfortable – played at sensible tempos certainly but never engaging the attention. Between the Symphony and the Mass came Haydn’s lengthy concert aria: “Scena di Berenice”. This immensely popular and oft-performed piece was written in London for the famous prima-donna Madame Banti (about whose abilities Haydn was famously very scathing). Catherine Bott sang the work beautifully. In form it is actually a very long recitative prior to a slow-moving aria, which gathers pace towards the end, and Bott certainly dramatised this sudden moment of anger superbly. I cannot pretend to find the work interesting and I suspect that Haydn was merely using his considerable skill to to please those promoting his concerts. Nevertheless this did not prevent me from enjoying the soloist’s lovely voice, which was also at its best when she took the solo soprano line in the Mass. Lynton Atkinson was the superb tenor and both he and bass Andrew Slater had immaculate diction. The contralto part is very important in this work; Kate McCarney sang with strength and phrased both colourfully and sensitively, yet she also added far more vibrato than did her companions. In a performance using original instruments one might question how appropriate it is for singers to employ 19th-century ‘operatic’ vibrato.

Turning to Chamber Music, great delight was to be experienced at those concerts that took place in daytime at smaller churches around the district. Often these are in the grounds of estates of folk who might be described as ‘the Local Gentry’ and they are extremely generous. Not only do they sometimes sponsor particular concerts but, without fail, audiences are invited into their houses and gardens and provided with tea or coffee and biscuits either before or after each concert. One of the two concerts at Acton Round church happened to be given in the evening, in consequence of which the audience was treated to a superb pre-concert buffet with wine.

Some chamber concerts were given by a group from the orchestra, others by resident pianist Ronald Brautigam, the Eroica Quartet and the Salomon Quartet. Although a church acoustic would normally sound quite resonant, audiences at the small churches leave no vacant seats which often results in a drier sound.

Haydn’s string trios were featured at the first Acton Round church concert. The trio, drawn from the orchestra, took some time to settle its tuning, but by the time Andrew Crawford had joined them for one of Haydn’s flute trios all seemed to be well and Mozart’s Flute Quartet (K285b) was very well done. Interestingly Duncan Druce, who plays violin in the orchestra, played viola on this occasion. The evening concert at Acton Round a couple of days later featured Haydn’s Piano Trios. The slight inconvenience, whereby the violin and cello were positioned at the front of Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano, which was placed behind them lengthways between the choir stalls, actually resulted in excellent balance. All too often one hears piano-heavy trios, but not here. Again tuning was a little worrying until the concert got going but this time I can be charitable and point out that it rained wildly but intermittently during the concert and this cannot have helped the instruments to retain their tuning. The pièce de résistance was the final item, the famous trio with the Hungarian Rondo. This was a huge success. The encore? Well of course the Rondo all over again – but this time taken something like fifty percent faster. Yes, I know it fell apart at times but everyone was so delighted by the sheer exuberance that it really did not matter: musicians and audience were having fun.

At the spacious Worfield Church, Ronald Brautigam gave a fortepiano recital. Certainly this was the pianist in thoughtful mood, but I feel that Mozart’s immensely long Sonata (K533/494) could be the dullest piece that he ever wrote. Brautigam’s languid approach was not inappropriate but the word soporific comes to mind. Even Haydn’s Sonata (Hob.XVI:46) is not among that composer’s most outgoing, and although Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sonata, is full of character, even here the pianist seemed intent on bringing out the gentler elements. Perhaps only Mozart’s jolly variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman” brought the audience’s attention fully to bear. Lovely church, with beautiful nearby gardens to visit – but a mundane concert.

Rather more interesting was Brautigam’s midweek lunchtime recital in St Leonard’s church. Here, three Haydn Sonatas were given (three bold examples: numbers 48, 50 and 52) interspersed with fascinating sets of variations on Scottish Airs by three different composers. Every example was of excellent quality. Perhaps not surprisingly, that by Cramer seemed the most skilfully written, but those by John Freckleton Burrowes and George Kiallmark were nearly as worthy. The Haydn sonatas made easy listening but it was a little surprising that, in 48 and 50, we were given no first movement repeats. Only in 52 did Brautigam bring true intensity. I felt too that with the inclusion of three unusual works, there should have been some description of the lesser-known pieces in the programme booklet – we were given a mere 70 or 80 words. They mentioned only the Haydn pieces and described only Sonata No.50.

The Eroica Quartet

String Quartets are a very important part of Haydn’s output and are normally well represented at the Festival. The Eroica Quartet is an occasional but rare visitor but it was given an entire evening in the main concert venue, featuring Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet played with subtly-judged rubato. This was a very expressive and flexible reading without being ‘romantic’ in concept. Strangely, it was followed by only the slow movement from Beethoven’s Opus 18/Number 4: beautiful, but I did not understand its relevance. The main work was the great and tremendously demanding Schubert Quintet in C (D956). The Eroica Quartet, joined by cellist Cathy Rimer, gave an intense and deeply moving interpretation. The huge structure was shaped with classical eloquence. Schubert’s inner feelings were displayed without affectation or over-expression and the unanimity of the playing was extraordinary. Unusually for the period, the composer requires a much slower tempo for the trio of the scherzo – Andante sostenuto as against Presto. It would be easy to lose continuity here, but in this performance the tempo chosen for the trio was exactly half that of the scherzo so the feeling of a continuous pulse still remained. Maybe because I had a seat close to the players, I wanted even quieter pianissimos in the slow movement (no doubt they would have seemed ideal had I occupied a seat further back) but this remained one of the most sensitive performances of the Quintet that I have experienced.

The next day the Eroica gave a lunch-time concert – two movements from the string quartet arrangement of Haydn’s Seven Last Words before Beethoven’s severe Opus 132. Again the unanimity of ensemble was remarkable. The unified expressiveness implied that every member of the quartet agreed in detail on the firm, uncompromising approach. Not a great deal to do with Haydn perhaps, but a lot to do with a mature, superbly executed interpretation of a dark masterpiece.

The Solomon Quartet

The Salomon Quartet has become a regular guest at the English Haydn Festival but its performances have changed over the years. This year it mainly featured the six quartets of Opus 71 and Opus 74. Before commenting on the performances, however, I must strongly object to an unfortunate habit that has crept into the Salomon’s performances over the years – the “three-legged minuet”. I first noticed the Quartet’s occasional indulgence in this aberration when reviewing a series of performances it gave at the Royal Northern College of Music a couple of years ago. I am referring to its extraordinary habit of making both repeats of a minuet before the trio, both repeats within the trio but at the return of the minuet making only the first repeat. This completely destabilizes the structure. There are two schools of thought: those that feel that no internal minuet repeats are required when that section returns after the trio (a long accepted 19th-century convention) and those who believe that both repeats should be made again. (Christopher Hogwood, Jaap Schröder, Roger Norrington, Roy Goodman and Derek Solomons regularly perform Haydn adhering to this principle.)

Both theories have their merits but the Salomon Quartet falls heavily between both stools. In 1982, I recall the Quartet making a superb recording of Opus 71/Numbers 1 & 2, giving both repeats at the final return of the minuets. A year ago in Bridgnorth it used the “three-legged” system of one repeat after the trio in about half its performances – a symptom of an increasing defect – but this year the defect has turned into a fully-fledged disease. If someone would like to form a “Society for the Abolition of Three-legged Minuets”, I should like to become a member. This oddity undermined my appreciation of the playing of these experienced musicians.

In St Leonard’s Church, the Salomon Quartet gave readings of Haydn’s Opus 64/Number 3, Opus 71/Number 1 and Opus 74/Number 3 together with John Shield’s C minor Quartet Opus 3/Number 6. Here the performers displayed a more resinous tone than the beautifully tailored Eroica Quartet had done (this is in no way intended as an adverse criticism). I felt sure that the extraordinarily fine Shield Quartet – a real discovery and a credit to the programming in choosing such a gem of a work from a lesser contemporary composer – was the best performance of the evening. Maybe this was because it was the one work that contained no minuet – my appreciation could not therefore be blunted by the Salomon Quartet’s cavalier approach to that dance-form. But to be fair, the equestrian rhythms of the finale to Haydn’s ‘Rider’ Quartet were sheer delight.

Next day, the same players were at the Baptist Church in the High Street. There was a big change of acoustic here which boosted the lower frequencies of the cello. This had a certain appeal but did not do justice to the keen sense of balance shown by this group. Haydn’s Opus 71/Number 3 and Opus 74/Number 2 were the main works but, again, the three-legged disease attacked the minuets. This time the rarity was John Marsh’s Quartet in B flat, which the composer admitted to be a direct tribute to Haydn’s very first string quartet (from Opus 1). In fact the quality was such that it challenged the work of the master at that period. Again, all praise to the Salomon Quartet for its adventurous programming.

At Stockton Church the next day we heard Opus 74/Number 1 and Opus 71/Number 2. Yes, the minuets were still ‘infected’. The English gem this time was Samuel Webbe Junior’s Variations on Adeste Fideles, the implied tribute to Haydn being a reflection of the style used by him in, as Webbe called it “Haydn’s celebrated Hymn to the Emperor”. This is more than a mere composer’s whim: the harmonization is very beautiful and it was played with cool gentleness. But what can be done about those minuets?

The structure of the Festival is very satisfying and the incorporation of the ‘Bridgnorth’ interval of 70 minutes in the evening concerts is a splendid notion (I have made several friends because of it). I believe there are plans for something special to celebrate 2009 – the bicentenary year of Haydn’s death – and it is rumoured that it may even include a souvenir recording. The English Haydn Festival seems to be going from strength to strength but to my amazement, one month after the Festival, the Bridgnorth Journal reported that the body that benefits most from this remarkable event – Bridgnorth District Council – voted not to hand out any money to support it, saying all its money was already donated.

  • This edited version of a report for the 2007 edition of the Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal appears with permission. For the original version and for further details of the Society’s aims and activities, please contact the Director, Professor Denis McCaldin at d.mccaldin@lancaster.ac.uk

  • Haydn Society of Great Britain

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