Feature Review – English Haydn Festival 2014

Written by: Antony Hodgson

Tuesday 3 June-Sunday 8 June, 2014, Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England


Conductor Anthony Halstead. Photograph: Graham Salter

This year’s feast of Haydn again presented a combination of orchestral and chamber concerts. Where Symphonies are concerned the current philosophy is to present works that have not previously been performed at this Festival.

All the concerts were conducted by Anthony Halstead. His immaculate sense of style was much in evidence. Symphony No.53 in D (L’Impériale) was revealing in terms of texture. It is rare for Haydn to omit trumpets from a Symphony that includes timpani, where the horns are at the low pitch of D, but ‘L’Impériale’ is one such example (Symphonies 13, 57 & 61 are others) and was revealed lucidly in this performance, much enhanced by the timpani-playing – hard sticks being used – and consequently there was great transparency. The small woodwind group (single flute and bassoon and two oboes) was beautifully defined and finely balanced. The proportions of the work were recognised: there is an extensive slow movement, a set of double variations; therefore Halstead’s observation of the second repeat in the first movement perfected the work’s overall proportions.

Painting of Joseph Haydn © 2014 Artist: Haydn Greenway

I am always delighted when Haydn’s lesser-known contemporaries are represented, and two gems were performed – the Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra by Haydn’s pupil Pleyel was given an immaculate reading with Simon Standage (violin) and his colleague in the Salomon Quartet, Adam Romer: a true musical partnership. I have remarked before on the positive nature of Romer’s playing, and the many cases of viola echoing violin found both instruments in perfect accord in their shaping of melodies. The delightful B flat Harp Concerto by Krumpholz followed. This composer was employed as an instrumentalist at the Eszterháza palace in the mid-1770s, and he even took lessons from Kapellmeister Haydn, but this work was written a decade after Krumpholz had left his duties there. This elegant composition – reminiscent of J. C. Bach – is full of good tunes but from where I was sitting the upper register was difficult to detect on the harp that was used – an 1820-reproduction by Erard of Paris of a single-action instrument designed in 1794 by the same firm; but we were only given the opportunity to bathe in its warm sound rather than to appreciate the detail of the solo writing.

Haydn’s Symphony 76 followed the Krumpholz. There are fewer than usual subtleties yet there is much melodic originality. Robert Simpson was so impressed that he took a theme from the first movement and included it in the scherzo of his Fourth Symphony: “The innocence of Haydn is confronted by us with a problem: Haydn is not disturbed but we are”. Here woodwinds act as harmonic support but are not often featured as soloists – only the quaintly off-beat oboes in the Trio of the Minuet break the calmer-than-usual pattern. The strings were excellent in this work, shaking off the slight greyness apparent at the start of the concert.

Two days later I was delighted with the comfortable pace at which the first movement of Symphony 77, marked Vivace, was taken by Halstead: a cheerful ambling tempo, lively as required, but not hurried. The Minuet was steady and forward-moving, with the strong interrupting chords boldly stressed. Minuets were a strength in all these performances, especially as the Trios really danced. Pavel Serbin travels annually to lead the cello section of the English Haydn Orchestra. He was also soloist in a Cello Concerto by Carl Stamitz, nominally the Fifth. Some authorities (and Wikipedia) refer to three Cello Concertos; No.4 is probably a Bassoon Concerto published as one for cello, and Serbin believes his outing for the current work – rediscovered in the Estaett University library in Bavaria – to be the first since the 18th-century. He performed it with skill and affection. A mild bonus was the slow movement of Haydn 13. This was not a long concert so why were we not given the rest of the Symphony? I suppose the excuse is that it contains an extensive part for cello. In Symphony Number 78 I was once more impressed by the approach to the Trio, the big changes of dynamic being strongly emphasised over a hurdy-gurdy-like bass. This can seem rather a dark work. The last two movements showed the brilliance expected of Haydn.

In Saturday’s orchestral concert a light touch was evident throughout Symphony 85, said to be approved of by Marie Antoinette and hence entitled ‘La Reine’, but there was a moment at the second subject of the first movement when the conductor added strong emphasis. I feel sure that he must have been aware of the remarkable similarity to the opening of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony (No.45) and wished to make a point. Again a strongly rhythmic Minuet was a feature. Yoko Kaneko returned this year and gave a straightforward performance of a Haydn Keyboard Concerto. There was a baroque feel about the music, and the uninflected style of the playing suited. In Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto I am not sure to what extent the even-toned fortepiano impacted on those hearing the music from the rear seats; nevertheless I was able to enjoy this cool reading despite the limited tonal colouration available from the chosen instrument. I was delighted that Halstead chose to give a brief analysis of Symphony 91 before conducting it, and especially pleased that he pointed out that the Allegro assai of the first movement should never be hurried. The breadth of phrasing was ideal, so too the relaxed treatment of the insouciant finale.

It is a tradition that the final concert of the Festival should include a choral work. This time it was Haydn’s ‘Mass in Time of War’ otherwise known as ‘Paukenmesse’ because of the complex timpani part towards the end: war is not heralded by force but by an extensive series of quiet, menacing drum strokes. The excellent solo singers, Natalie Clifton-Griffiths, Daniel Norman and Andrew Slater also took part in last year’s The Creation; they were joined here by Miranda Westcott. The opening passages were greatly enhanced by the immaculate diction of Slater, and the soloists blended subtly in their ensembles. The Mass is largely choral, however; the Haydn Festival Chorus brought impressively unified tone, conducted by John Moore who has directed the majority of these end-of-festival concerts and who is familiar to most of the choristers. Orchestral detail was clearly defined, and the potential problem of ensemble posed by the considerable distance between the front of the orchestra and the chorus was successfully overcome. Halstead played the continuo part on a chamber-organ. The notable drum solo in the ‘Agnus Dei’ – the very essence of the philosophy of the Mass – was all the more threatening because of the authentically dry nature of the timpani. Altogether, a moving experience.

Two orchestral works, conducted by Halstead, completed the concert: Mozart’s Oboe Concerto (K314), with Anthony Robson, was crisply given – I was convinced by his few decorative flourishes. Concluding this year’s Festival was a strong reading of Haydn’s ‘Oxford’ Symphony (No.92). Here the conductor emphasised drama rather than Viennese suavity, and gave a Beethovenian feel to the music. The single all-through tempo for the slow movement was very convincing (so many conductors rush the loud parts), and the remarkable Trio, where Haydn puts the stresses on the upbeat, was enhanced by Halstead’s emphasis of the weighty pizzicato chords where the downbeat is located. This resulted in a wonderful feeling of everything being on the wrong beat – and of course that is Haydn’s little joke.

Chiaroscuro Quartet. Photograph: www.chiaroscuroquartet.com

A certain amount of chamber music was performed in the large venue of St Leonard’s Church. On the first night the Chiaroscuro Quartet performed Haydn’s Opuses 20/1 and 33/5, and Mozart’s neglected K173, whose quaint slow movement, despite being marked Andante grazioso, has remarkable moments of jollity. The violinists and violists stood to play. The musicians’ approach was very unusual: despite much freedom of tempo, they seemed fully to comprehend the work’s structure. For example the tempo of the second subject of the first movement of Opus 20/1 subsided to a crawl and I thought “how are they going to get out of this” but somehow the exposition section was completed at the basic speed without it being obvious where the recovery was made. Each movement was treated rather like a tone poem, and shaped for dramatic effect. One might have assumed that this would be a disaster in a dance movement but the Minuets worked well – particularly that of the Mozart. Where other ensembles often persist in the worn-out habit of suddenly switching tempo at double bars or at Trio sections, the Chiaroscuro members turn whole sections into arching phrases, and although tempo is subject to manipulation for expressive purposes there is logic in the way ‘paragraphs’ are created.

Salamon String Quartet. Photograph: Graham Salter

Simon Standage is a mainstay of this Festival. Not only did he lead the orchestra and play solo in the Pleyel, he also brought his Salomon Quartet, and later led the English Haydn Ensemble. The Salomon Quartet has been in existence for over 30 years under Standage’s leadership, although other personnel have changed. Some of their performances in previous Festivals have been eccentric, but I have no such complaints this year. I felt that the interpretations were very much the conception of Standage in their straightforward elegance: no liberties were taken with tempo and yet plenty of room was left for meaningful phrasing of melodies and with natural give and take. The works here were Opuses 71/3 & 2, and the ‘Rider’ Quartet (Opus 74/3). The fantastic, fiery finale became a tour de force.

On the penultimate day of the Festival, Standage led the English Haydn Ensemble at Acton Round church where the intimate acoustic was suitable. It is greatly to Standage’s credit that he combined with three members of the English Haydn Orchestra to make up a string-quartet, and it seemed as if they had been playing together for years. David Lewis played second violin, Serbin was cellist, and Ben Sansom took the viola. Opuses 54/1 and 55/1 were the Haydn works, and Standage’s mixture of objectivity and sensitivity was much in evidence. The gem of the concert was a String Quartet by Gyrowetz (Opus 25/1), the enormous first movement of which featured melody after melody while ignoring the conventional shape of sonata form. Incidentally, all credit to Sansom for playing to the end of the movement despite his A-string breaking midway-through.

The remaining chamber concert at St Leonard’s was given by the Barbican Piano Trio. It performed those works numbered by Hoboken as 18, 23, 10, 26 and 30. The programme offered little in contrast between one piece and another, but the instruments made a reasonable impact within a very large space, and Sophie Lockett’s sweet-toned violin was well suited to the suave interpretations. All but one of the Trios came from the mid-1790s, but, curiously, the earlier two-movement E flat from 1785 (Hob:10) is the most original and the most interesting.

The day after performing Krumpholz’s Concerto at St Leonard’s, David Watkins gave a harp recital at nearby St Mary’s Church featuring music by Croft, Casanovas, Dussek, Mozart, Mayer, Cardon, Spohr, and one more piece by Krumpholz (a Romance). Spoken introductions were helpful, the replica period instrument less so, and the weakness of its upper register remained evident – particularly disappointing was the arrangement of the first movement of Mozart’s K545 Piano Sonata – it simply did not work. Two other pieces suffered breakdowns (pedal trouble, I believe), and while the brief Sonata by Casanovas made some impact, Dussek’s Sonata in D minor was very unclear, and I query the decision to adopt such amazingly fast speeds – in this spacious acoustic the notes in the higher register were barely distinguishable. Fortunately, Spohr’s broad and somewhat Romantic Fantasy in C minor ended the concert, and here the richer elements of the antique Erard were heard to better advantage.

More appropriate use of a big venue was found at St Peter’s Church in Worfield, where Clare McCaldin gave a lecture-recital entitled “Haydn’s London Ladies”. Her narrative was not shy in relating the closeness of Haydn to four artistic women, and, in particular, excerpts from the letters of Rebecca Schroeter underlined the affectionate esteem in which Haydn was held by cultured ladies during his time in London. There were copious musical examples including some fortepiano solos played by Paul Turner, but mostly a selection of songs illustrated the theme. McCaldin took what might be called a ‘modern’ approach, presenting the stylised 18th-century words in a passionate way, her powerful voice enhanced by the rich acoustics, making it clear that much of her musical experience is on the operatic stage.

Overall the 2014 Festival in Bridgnorth was a success, and for the second year in a row, an extra day was added. This was very welcome. I do hope, however, that in future it will be possible to have a lunch-hour concert every day. Otherwise, I have no complaint at the varied fare, and I find the presentation of Haydn’s lesser-known contemporaries a particularly attractive feature and look forward to more. How about some Michael Haydn next year? After all, it is a Haydn festival.

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