Feature Review: English Haydn Festival 2010 – Wednesday-Sunday 9-13 June, Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England

Written by: Antony Hodgson

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

The English Haydn Festival has taken place annually since 1993 but the last full-scale event was in 2007. The illness and death of its director John Reid resulted in the cancellation of the 2008 festival. However the organisation persevered and was able to put on an excellent three-day event in 2009. This year it was expanded to five days. This must have required a huge amount of work and the adventurous programming did credit to the new regime. This year there was a greater proportion of music by Haydn and the choice of music by his contemporaries was interesting. No longer were Beethoven or Mozart piano concertos used as supplementary material (after all, these works can be heard in concert halls on a very regular basis); instead, there were works attributed to but not necessarily by Haydn and these made for interesting listening.

Last November saw the death of the Festival’s Musical Advisor, H. C. Robbins Landon, who had been involved from its very beginning and had underlined its value in his autobiography Horns in High C (Thames and Hudson, 1999). This year tribute was paid to him in the programming. The very first concert was dedicated to his memory and it took place in the main venue, St Leonard’s Church, with Anthony Halstead conducting the resident English Haydn Festival Orchestra led by Duncan Druce. The personnel of this orchestra is consistent year to year although, sadly, the regular leading cellist, Jonathan Price, was unable to take part this year because of a shoulder problem. He was replaced by Pavel Serbin – and with important solos in both the symphonies performed during the first evening his talents were immediately evident.

Symphony 88 opened the concert which was dedicated to the memory of H. C. Robbins Landon. Following a vigorous performance of the opening movement – notable for Haydn’s unexpected decision to exclude trumpets and drums – Halstead took a very measured tempo for the slow movement – justified by Haydn’s Largo instruction – and it worked superbly, not merely because of a sense of forward flow despite the slow tempo but because the conductor avoided the very common habit of speeding up when the music became louder. His unvarying solemn tread gave the music the atmosphere of a funeral march and Haydn’s rare employment of trumpets and drums within a slow movement heightened the sense of tragedy. Added to this was the great sensitivity of Serbin’s approach to the passages where a solo cello is featured. One of Halstead’s strengths is his crisply rhythmic approach to Minuets and the peasant-like example in this symphony was a fine example of rustic dance, especially in the Trio with its hint of the hurdy-gurdy represented by the lower instruments. The finale was played at Landon’s funeral – I think this too would have delighted him: poised and crisply phrased with a magnificent coda commencing, after Haydn’s carefully prepared pause, with a tremendous full-orchestra attack which was underpinned by the forceful stressing of the single initial drum-stroke.

Colin Lawson

Colin Lawson was soloist in the subsequent piece – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – suitably contemporary with the surrounding Haydn works. I recall the first time that this was performed at the Festival (1993) when Jack Brymer was the soloist – a magical performance – and a member of the orchestra told me how privileged she felt to be playing in that performance saying, “we so wanted to do well for Jack”. Lawson brought a different, but very convincing character to the music, using a period basset clarinet – an instrument that permits the player to achieve certain lower notes not available on the modern clarinet. Lawson’s interpretation was firm and his technique immaculate. He was ‘classical’ in approach, not allowing himself the luxury of the breathless hush in the slow movement achieved by Brymer, indeed such an indulgence would not have suited to Lawson’s approach. He did however permit himself a few decorations here and there and they were never overdone.

The classical approach to balancing solo instruments against orchestra was retained in Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante wherein the soloists were Simon Standage and Andrew Skidmore (from the Salomon String Quartet) with Mark Baigent, oboe, and Robert Percival, bassoon (both members of the English Haydn Orchestra). In this work the importance of the cello soloist can be underestimated but Skidmore was superb with his tone powerful enough to match the varied timbres of his companion soloists. Clarity was also assisted by the use of the orchestral horns in the higher register (record collectors will recall Dorati and Adam Fischer doing likewise in the context of their complete recordings of the Haydn symphonies). Lively and dance-like was the overall impression given by this reading with all soloists accomplishing their demanding requirements with fluent ease.

In his notes Landon referred to Symphony 95 as being “distinctly less successful than its sister works”. Halstead set out to stress its minor-key drama. The opening movement was swift and powerful and in the development section the fugal section for strings was played with suitable fury. At the start of the coda Haydn magically changes the key from C minor to C major and the horns change their crooks from E flat to C alto – a superb effect, as if the sun had suddenly shone brightly upon a sombre scene. Unfortunately many conductors choose to lower the pitch of these instruments rather than raise them but horn-expert Halstead realised the potential of using them at trumpet pitch. I have heard only one other conductor realise the importance of this change to the upper octave – that was Leslie Jones in his 40-year-old recording, long unavailable. After an even-toned Andante given at a flowing pace, Halstead provided a strongly rhythmic Minuet. Halstead’s was one of those rare readings in which the Trio, which employs solo cello throughout, was not hindered by the fashionable idea of ‘slowing down for the hard bit’. Here the Trio was entirely at the same tempo as the Minuet and Pavel Serbin was extraordinarily accurate, always keeping alive the underlying basic minuet rhythm. This minor-key symphony ends with a major-key finale and once again the use of horns at the upper octave brought forth some thrilling timbres.

On the following day the highly skilled wind group London Serenade provided an intriguing programme. Clearly such a large ensemble must include Mozart’s Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments but the extensive opening piece, Krommer’s E flat Octet (supported by double bass as authentic-style requires) was an interesting discovery. Colin Lawson led the ensemble from the clarinet desk and this charming composition, though not boasting any truly memorable melodies, gave plenty of soloistic opportunities, all of which were taken with great skill. The following piece was one of those works attributed to, but not necessarily by, Haydn – a Divertimento in B flat. I might have preferred a better-known disputed work to have been played (the B flat Feldpartita famous for Brahms’s later use of one of its themes comes to mind) because I found nothing special about the selected Haydn-like piece which seemed rather long for its material.

Unfinished portrait of Mozart aged 26, but his brother-in-law Joseph Lange

The Mozart Serenade gave every opportunity for this ensemble to show its quality. The fully-scored passages made a magnificent sound but the individual timbres were always clearly evident – even the subtle difference in sound between the clarinets and their near cousins the basset horns could be detected. The interpretation itself I found somewhat controversial. I was certainly surprised to hear the appoggiaturas in the first movement played as short grace notes – indeed they were so clipped that the word ‘grace’ had little or no relevance. Since the continuation of the melody includes appoggiatura-style pairs of notes, the inconsistency was underlined. All the tempos were very suitable, yet throughout there were quirky phrasings – often a double bar would herald a hesitation or underlining prior to moving forward. This was particularly so at the commencement of trio sections which were often preceded by an indeterminate pause and a hesitant first few notes, although mercifully the tempo did not relax once those few tentative notes had been negotiated. I suppose it could be argued that to stress the beginnings of new episodes draws the listener’s attention to them but it seems a very old-fashioned way. It would be interesting to know how the players came to decide on these whimsical moments of emphasis. Certainly this method was used consistently but did the ensemble decide jointly or did the leader suggest this approach? This apart, the playing was of a high order and the finale was entirely joyous – an uplifting end to an evening of interestingly programmed music-making.

Anthony Robson

The following evening found a further permutation of personnel. Anthony Robson who had so skilfully played important oboe solos in the previous night’s wind-band performance now conducted and he commenced with Haydn’s splendid Symphony 102. As with Halstead, Robson was careful to clarify timbres and this clarity was enhanced by using the horns in B flat alto. Unusually for this orchestra there were hints of untidiness in the strings early in the first movement but the musicians’ confident, strong tone soon established itself and Robson’s firm, unhurried tempos worked well. Due respect was given to one particular focal point – the thrilling drum crescendo at the start of the first movement’s recapitulation.

Two more ‘attributed’ works were performed at this concert. The first was a tuneful E flat concerto for two horns from the very end of the eighteenth-century. Some unconvincing musicology surrounds its origins – the German-based manuscript is inscribed “Michael Haydn” but it is clearly not in his handwriting so the work was subsequently ascribed to his brother Joseph. The music sounds very little like that of either composer but it did give rise to interesting interval discussions – I think Rosetti might be a good candidate but another suggestion that Wagenseil might be responsible makes good sense too. I think we may never know who composed it, but it made a fine showcase for the skills of Roger Montgomery and Nicholas Benz. The other attributed work was an Oboe Concerto and here Anthony Robson was both soloist and conductor. The earliest manuscripts comprise instrumental parts on which the name Haydn has been inscribed although he never placed it in his catalogue of his works. It is a firmly structured piece and the Robson fashioned the pleasing melodies convincingly. At times there are turns of phrase and modulations of key that are very like Haydn but they are not sufficient to provide any great conviction that he was the composer. Nevertheless the association, however questionable, has the merit of letting us hear this very enjoyable work in the concert hall from time to time.

More familiar ground was reached in the final work – Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony (No.100). Highlights included excellent woodwind-playing and the two major timpani solos – the powerful crescendo before the “hellish roar of war” that closes the second movement and the outrageously fierce solo in the finale. Otherwise there was a certain amount of understatement – particularly in respect of Haydn’s added percussion. The bass drum was struck firmly enough but cymbals and triangle were extremely modest – indeed, often they were barely audible. This was a nicely fashioned performance with well-judged tempos but I would have preferred to be bowled over by the power of the symphony – I was left wanting a greater degree of violence.

Saturday’s orchestral concert featured the last two of Haydn’s Symphonies. Anthony Halstead told us he would be playing the complete version of the finale of Symphony 103. The autograph of the score shows bars 364-380 crossed out, but there is no doubt that they were performed in London and only after Haydn’s return to Vienna did the publisher omit them from the publication. It is said that Haydn agreed to this. I have never seen any musical reason for these bars to be omitted – they are extraordinary and mysterious and even reach the remote key of C flat to dramatic effect. Since modern scholars frequently insist that cuts to Bruckner’s symphonies should be ignored and the music performed as originally written, why should not that philosophy apply also to Haydn? In this performance those bars were very effective.

Halstead also justified his approach to the two drum-rolls in the opening movement of this Drum Roll Symphony. At the start, and also prior to the return of the slow introduction late in the movement, Haydn marked the timpani as a ‘solo’ and at both its appearances the relevant bar is headed ‘Intrada’. This is usually construed to mean a drum roll but the score only indicates that it represents an introduction of some kind. Halstead, after consultation with his timpanist, used two different sets of rhythmic patterns. Largely (as he explained) giving a military connotation. The dead-sounding single beats in crescendo that commenced the second drum sequence certainly made a grimly war-like effect. Although this subjective realisation of Haydn’s assumed intention added interest to the powerful reading of the work on this occasion, I should prefer not have such an approach set down on a recording – there I would I find a conventional drum-roll to be adequate because any improvisation would lose its effect on repeated hearings. The second movement, marked Andante più tosto allegretto, is demanding because the exact tempo is not easy to find. I have heard rushed performances and also readings that have seemed interminable. Halstead’s medium pace worked because the music was always comfortably phrased and the important variation for solo violin found Duncan Druce playing it firmly but without over expression – I suggest that he regarded himself as a member of the orchestra rather than a star soloist. The Trio of the sturdy Minuet was balanced in such a way as to stress the bold timbres of the clarinets – those rare visitors to Haydn’s symphonic scoring.

Mark Baigent

Johann Christian Bach’s C major Sinfonia Concertante is not one of his most remarkable works. It is tuneful enough though: one pleasing melody follows another, but unlike Haydn, J. C. Bach puts no great demands on the soloists. Andrew Crawford and Mark Baigent were the skilful players of flute and oboe respectively and this time Christophe Coin took the cello part with Simon Standage as violinist. Serious travel delays had meant that Coin was hard put to it to arrive in time and he even arranged for an announcement to be made apologising for his lack of conventional evening-attire since his suit had not yet been delivered. None of this affected his playing and the whole was skilfully directed from the harpsichord by Anthony Halstead. This conductor’s concern for period practice extended to the performance of Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto, an early work which is often played with no continuo but Halstead very correctly directed from harpsichord and added bassoon continuo, too – Haydn himself is on record as stressing the importance of this instrument as part of the continuo group. The performance – just a touch less excitingly pressing than that of Stephen Isserlis at an earlier Festival – was crisp and precise despite the brief amount of time that Coin had been given to settle down. This could however have been the reason for the moment near the start of the finale when the music fell apart, but at the soloist’s quietly spoken request the piece was restarted. This was all done so swiftly and subtly that the audience hardly had time to notice that any mishap had occurred.

Haydn’s London Symphony ended the concert – a big authoritative reading, notable for the conductor’s keen attention to the scaling of dynamics. Forte orchestral chords were strong and noble but, for particularly crucial moments, space was left for brass and drums to add an extra element of force. I was especially pleased that in the Minuet the second section was repeated after the Trio as well as before. The first part is fully written out by Haydn therefore the structure of the movement would have been spoilt if the second repeat were omitted (although many conductors seem not to realise this).

On the Sunday the final concert, given in the presence of His Excellency Emil Brix (the Austrian Ambassador) was represented by vocal music. It featured two of the works played at the memorial service for H. C. Robbins Landon. The programme-notes for this concert were by Landon himself but were puzzling since they referred to the first work played as being the early Te Deum. His description mentioned parts for oboes, but other sources – including Landon himself in one of his Haydn biographies – say that the only wind instruments involved are trumpets which are accompanied by drums and organ. This scarcely matters since John Moore conducted the English Haydn Festival Chorus in the late, far better known Te Deum; the second time within a few months that I have witnessed his very fine reading. He interprets the music on a grand scale and his performance reminded me of Ferenc Fricsay’s excellent 1960 recording – indeed, that was the very recording played at Landon’s memorial service. The diction of the English Haydn Chorus was ideally clear (I have noted this over the years in Moore’s performances of choral music with these singers). The central part of the concert consisted of arias from Orlando Paladino and the selection was admirable. Each of the four soloists was given an opportunity to display exceptional skill and the chronology of the excerpts was only compromised when it was felt necessary to end with an ensemble piece; the finale to Act One was used – an excellent idea. The highlight was the popular duet between Eurilla and Pasquale (Miranda Westcott and Andrew Slater) which was presented with delightful humour. Generally we were given showpieces for all the soloists (Catherine Bott was the soprano and Lynton Atkinson the tenor) and a feast of singing.

The second half of the concert presented the same soloists with different demands. Again the music from the memorial concert was represented. Robbins Landon’s superbly detailed notes about Mozart’s Requiem and its completion were printed in the programme. We were told that Landon’s own edition was used at the service and in his fascinating essay he explained how as editor he had chosen to retain some adjustments and orchestrations made by Mozart’s pupil Eybler before that composer gave up the task of completing the unfinished work and Süssmayr took it on. Süssmayr approached the completion in a different way. Naturally the audience was intrigued to know what edition would be used in this performance. I wondered if the Landon or the Süssmayr edition were to be employed but if either were adopted then what might the distinguished musicologist, composer and leader of the orchestra, Duncan Druce, feel about playing in a performance when he himself had published an alternative edition? I need not have been concerned however, because it was Druce’s edition that was used – a fine piece of work with its origins closer to Süssmayr than to Eybler. John Moore controlled his choral forces with skill and the stronger passages were extremely powerful – the close of the ‘Lacrimosa’ was gripping and the ‘Dies Irae’ was given an ideally dark and threatening atmosphere. The soloists were admirably clear and blended well but set against an orchestra playing on ‘period’ instruments I do have reservations about the way in which they often projected their voices in a modern ‘operatic’ style; after all, vocal vibrato was not regularly employed until long after the end of the eighteenth-century. Nevertheless this did not prevent the performance from being sensitive and moving. At the close, the considerable pause before the audience started to applaud was touching in itself.

The Salomon Quartet

A good deal of chamber music took place in daytime recitals during the Festival. At St Leonard’s and St Mary’s churches on Thursday and Friday the Salomon Quartet presented Haydn’s three Opus 71 Quartets, Opus 74/Number 3 and Opus 64/Numbers 5 & 6. This was a slightly disappointing choice because the last time the Salomon attended the Festival its members also played these Opus 71 and 74 quartets. This year the personnel differed. Andrew Skidmore has replaced Jennifer Ward-Clarke as cellist. Regular viola player Trevor Jones was taken ill and was replaced by Tom Dunn. It must be said that Dunn integrated with his colleagues very well indeed – I know that he was called in at very short notice. Not surprisingly the performances differed slightly from those in 2007. The ‘period’ instruments seemed slightly softer-toned – perhaps their method of blending together had been adjusted because of the change of personnel. Whatever the reason the sound was comfortable and intonation was excellent. The richer acoustic of St Mary’s did not help the players in matters of clarity however. As for the performances, the past tendency to underline arrivals at changes of key that I noticed in former years was no longer evident. There was the occasional ‘breath’ before a new section but nothing that could not be accepted as a moment of interpretative musical expression. The sad thing was that their habitual insistence on imposing an illogical repeat pattern on many Minuets still remained. In 2007 I explained in detail the nature of this anomaly and this year the examples of asymmetrical shape imposed on these movements continued to spoil the otherwise-polished and generally sensitive representations of Haydn’s music.

Again local residents generously supported the Festival and chamber concerts took place in churches on their estates or close by. Sue and Hew Kennedy hosted a concert given by The English Haydn Quartet in the church close to their home, afterwards inviting the entire audience into their beautiful house at Acton Round for coffee and biscuits. Mark Baigent played oboe in a Quartet by Johann Christian Bach – a tuneful piece of Tafelmusik – and also Mozart’s Oboe Quartet. The remaining players – Duncan Druce, Ben Sansom and Deborah Thorne, played two of Haydn’s string trios. The players coped well with the alternation of rain and sun that can so easily threaten accurate tuning. I don’t know how often these players come together but they seemed entirely at home with each other.

At the much larger Worfield Church this year the Christophe Coin Trio performed Haydn’s Trios Hob XV 16 and 17 and Coin played Beethoven’s Sonata in G minor for Pianoforte and Violoncello (Opus 5/Number 2) with Yoko Kaneko at an excellently even-toned fortepiano. Afterwards, tea was provided by Mr and Mrs Dumbell and the audience was given the opportunity to explore their spacious garden with its many delightful walks.

I regard these smaller concerts as the essence of the Festival – there seemed an atmosphere of peace with an element of friendliness between those attending. I suggest this might be a reflection of the comfort currently felt by the regular Festival enthusiasts (of which I count myself one) now that they realise that the threatened possibility of the demise of this important annual feature has been overcome.

  • This is an edited version of the report which is due to appear in the 2010 edition of the Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal. It is posted here with permission
  • English Haydn Festival
  • For details of the Society’s aims and activities, please contact the Director, Professor Denis McCaldin at d.mccaldin@lancaster.ac.uk

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