Written by: Antony Hodgson
Wednesday, June 7-Sunday, 11 June, 2017
Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England
The 2017 English Haydn Festival had several innovative features. The inclusion of lesser-known (and often unduly neglected) composers of Joseph Haydn’s era has long been an attractive feature and this year included a UK premiere and also a first performance of a work in tribute to Haydn commissioned by the Festival Trust.
Steven Devine was this year’s principal conductor, replacing the indisposed Anthony Halstead. Devine played harpsichord continuo where suitable and fortepiano in some chamber pieces. Devine gave an indication of his commitment to ‘period’-style when, at the start of the first concert, he addressed us and explained that he had evidence that the specific layout of instruments that he would use was also done in Haydn’s time (though there is no indication that Haydn necessarily used it). I had the impression that Devine was using the Haydn Festival as an opportunity to test this system. Strings were seated with antiphonal violins and double basses central at the back, but flutes and oboes stood behind first violins while horns (and occasionally clarinets) stood behind seconds. I am intrigued to know where the evidence for this arrangement was found.
Devine then launched into Haydn’s Symphony 76 – an underrated work with a lively yet serious opening movement in which rhythms were pointed very strongly – a feature of Devine’s evident throughout the Festival. This is a thoughtful piece and the mysterious second subject commencing at bar forty-nine appealed to Robert Simpson so strongly that he incorporated it into his Fourth Symphony saying: “The innocence of Haydn is confronted by us with a problem; Haydn is not disturbed, but we are.” Devine’s approach included an unusually swift Minuet but this was justified since the same tempo was retained for the Trio.
There followed Mendelssohn’s Symphony in D, composed at the tender age of thirteen, No.8 of the dozen ‘String Symphonies’ he wrote prior to the five Symphonies that include the ‘Scottish’ and ‘Italian’, but this one is scored for full orchestra. It was a therefore a great disappointment to see the wind-players depart and we heard the strings-only first thoughts. There was much pleasure to be gained however from the beautiful contribution of the viola section in the Adagio.
Abel’s charming Cello Concerto was next, featuring the immaculate intonation and positive drive of Pavel Serbin. Composed around the time of the Haydn Symphonies it sounds rather earlier and except for the cheerful J. C. Bach-like Finale, it has Baroque overtones. The concert ended with an exceptionally fine account of Haydn 81. I have been known to complain that conductors sometimes make the spurious repeat of the second part of the Minuet’s Trio, clearly an error because Haydn has already written out the repetition in full; an early printing of the Universal Edition score includes that error and is now corrected. Warning to conductors: please use the latest edition, otherwise ignore the repeat.
The adventurous commissioning of a work was the main feature of the lunchtime recital the following day. The Salomon String Quartet first played Haydn’s Opus 77/1 in which St. Leonard’s Church was a little unkind to Simon Standage’s normally positive tone but this was nevertheless a noble account and the wonderfully hushed return of the main theme during the Adagio was a magical moment, and his final but unfinished String Quartet (Opus 103) was played sensitively, followed by ‘Der Greis’, the quartet version of the sad melody of which the words set to it mean: “Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I.”. As a prelude to Luke Bedford’s ‘Orbita’ Quartet we heard the theme and final variation from the slow movement of Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ String Quartet – an imaginative idea because Bedford’s work refers to the final chord and expands it. The music is indeed orbital, soon picking up a threatening pizzicato from the viola which persists, the central section including forceful chords which repeatedly die, recalling the sadness of Haydn and after a fierce passage for all the instruments, the music makes its way back to the initial chord; a worthwhile challenge for Haydn lovers.
For the next two concerts, programming was less enterprising. The poorly attended midday event with Florilegium (flute, fortepiano and string quartet) provided a great deal of exact and sensitive playing, yet the Cannabich Flute Quartet sounded vague and inconsequential, the C. P. E. Bach Quartet non-dramatic and Haydn’s Piano Trio Hob.28 was given a reading so flexible as to sound like café music, although the unusual feature of piano solos in the slow movement was ear-catching. Pleyel’s Grand Trio (Opus 29) is a mild piece although there is an intriguing section where flute and piano in harmony give the illusion of two flutes playing. The concert ended with a straightforward reading of Haydn’s Opus 9/6 String Quartet; given the nature of the programme, it would have been more suitably performed in the nearby marquee while people were enjoying lunch.
The concert in St Mary Magdalene’s Church, half-a-mile from the main venue, was not really relevant to Haydn. Devine was the excellent forte-pianist with section leaders in the Piano and Wind Quintets by Mozart and Beethoven. The evening concert at St Leonard’s brought far greater drama and interest. It was a good time also to assess the ‘new’ orchestral layout. Haydn’s exciting Symphony 50 opened proceedings and added a problem because in the first three movements high horns and trumpets are in unison but from my position I could hear nothing at all from the horns. In the Finale there are moments when they play separately were here excellent. The interpretation was very convincing, both sturdy and fiery. Devine takes movements on their respective merits for whereas Minuets had hitherto been swift he was aware of the grandeur of this example.
Michael Haydn’s Flute Concerto was a delight. Eva Caballero was both sensitive and absolutely accurate; I appreciated the brevity of her cadenzas. Devine directed from the harpsichord and in many of the flute melodies only the leader of each string section was required to accompany. The Violin Concerto by the sadly short-lived Thomas Linley (1756-1787), exact contemporary and friend of Mozart, was performed tenderly by Standage – once again a tower of strength during the Festival – as soloist and leading ensembles. Pleyel’s Symphony in the unusual key of F-minor (only twenty-five of 8,748 eighteenth-century symphonies are in this key) is a pleasing work with some interesting breaking of rhythm and unexpected pauses. The Minuet has an additional coda and Devine made the first movement especially fierce.
It is always a pleasure to go out of town; at the church of Acton Round Standage and friends formed the English Haydn Ensemble, opening with a String Quartet by Vanhal performed with vigour. The first movement has unusual features – where one expects a development, the minor-keyed first subject is restated in the major. Then there is the pizzicato-accompanied Adagio which bears a very strong resemblance to Haydn’s Divertimento (Hob.II:9) with its elegant melody over pizzicato bass, and also to the famous movement from the ‘Serenade’ Quartet. Haydn’s D-minor String Quartet (Opus 9/4) ensued in a firm performance with some demanding passages for the first violinist – effortlessly executed by Standage, and written with the leader of Haydn’s Orchestra at Eszterháza in mind, Tomasini, whose D-major String Quartet followed, a beautifully fashioned piece with angular melodies ending with a most optimistic Finale. I like the way Tomasini stops when he has said all that is needed.
Haydn’s Divertimento (Hob.II:17) began the evening concert, a substantial work for nine instruments in nine movements, not played in the accustomed order, and the horn parts, though in the comfortable area of low C, are quite demanding. Could we have more of Haydn’s many Divertimentos please? There followed a vivid outing for C. P. E. Bach’s dramatic D-major Symphony (Wq182/1), Devine’s harpsichord heightening the fierce chords. All the drama of those intense Haydn Sturm und Drang Symphonies is here and the pauses made a potent effect.
Like Standage, Serbin also serves the Festival well – Concertos, leading the cellos, and typically including a rarity, this year the Symphonie concertante by Leopold Hofmann (1738-1793), for two cellos, which includes a Minuet with a Trio for the cellos and a virtuoso part for double bass. Christophe Coin was partnered by Serbin and they achieved ideal unity and immaculate playing. Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony (No.101) again raised thoughts about layout, as before; ensemble was acceptable but the clarinets did not make much impact. This was nevertheless a firmly driven performance featuring much precision in the tricky first movement; there was a swift but well-controlled ‘Clock’ movement, a Minuet that thrust forward eagerly and a Finale which was fairly broad but with a rhythmic forcefulness that fully justified the modest speed.
The final day included a morning service at St Mary Magdalene Church where Haydn’s late ‘Heiligmesse’ was incorporated into Eucharist. The Hymns very suitable – the first of which uses English words set to Haydn’s ‘Emperor’s Hymn’; other music was by Michael Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. At the close the organ voluntary was given by nine-year-old Connor Tibbs who was a star performer in an impressive recital given by talented local music students.
At St Leonard’s shortly afterwards, Quatuor Mosaïques performed Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On the Cross (Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze) in the reduction Haydn made in 1787, losing some melodic lines assigned to woodwinds, not what one would expect of him. Without the colourful orchestration, is the quartet version of any value? The musicians performed with utmost expression and considerable skill. It could be argued that such freedom might not always suit but something has to be done to retain the attention as one slow movement followed another. ‘Sitio’ (I thirst) was a good example, performed more broadly than usual; the long repeat was also observed giving the opportunity to hear a wonderful melody played gently and sensitively three times. The players did their very best for this poor man’s version of Haydn’s grand composition, but over an hour of slow music on four string-instruments made for challenging listening.
Traditionally on the final night a choral work is performed and John Moore was again the conductor. Michael Haydn’s Requiem was a very successful choice. Beautiful and lyrical, it has an almost symphonic shape and Moore enhanced this impression by not pausing between sections. The ‘Dies irae’ offered only moments of threat – and even then it subsided gracefully into the ‘Offertorium’; this is a Requiem of consolation. It uses four soloists in conjunction with the Haydn Festival Chorus – typically each voice will sing similar phrases in turn. Philippa Hyde had some of the more-florid moments, contralto Miranda Westcott was commanding, tenor Daniel Norman presented his part with comforting strength and Andrew Slater was the firm-toned bass with notably clear diction, but it was the moulding of all four voices within the choral episodes that greatly impressed.
There remained two further vibrant works – Krommer’s F-major Oboe Concerto (Opus 52) which was brilliantly played by Mark Baigent with Devine directing. It is fully scored – even the slow movement includes trumpets and drums – and the delightful Finale was delivered with élan. Devine’s rhythmic precision and clear-cut direction suited the final work – Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony (No.100). The opening movement was particularly powerful but later I wished for greater violence from the percussion. A cymbal on a stand with another tapped gently did not contribute to the “hellish roar of war” observed by a commentator of Haydn’s time. Certainly it was no substitute for a large pair of cymbals being struck together with force.
Devine made his musical personality clear. For his experiment with layout I award eight-out-of-ten but a project worth doing. For future EHFs, an avoidance of small-scale music in the big churches would be welcome. Much praise however for the interesting selection of rarely heard contemporaries – and by next year’s silver jubilee, might there be a claim that every Haydn Symphony has been performed?