Feature Review: English Haydn Festival – Bridgnorth 5-9 June 2013

Written by: Anthony Hodgson

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) by Thomas Hardy, 1792

When attending the 2012 English Haydn Festival I felt that it would be good in future perhaps to add another day so I was very pleased to find that in 2013 this was so.

First Day

After two years, chief conductor Anthony Halstead returned, and he impressed greatly through his firm adherence to what nowadays we believe to be 18th-century performing practice. The attractively programmed opening concert included three symphonies that had never before been performed here. First, we heard two very early symphonies: Nos.1 & 37. It is well known that 37 is mis-numbered, and recent researches suggest that it had probably been composed by 1758, with some authorities even suggesting that it may have been Haydn’s first symphony. Number 1 cannot be dated. However, Haydn did believe that it was his initial venture into the symphonic field. All this encouraged Halstead to challenge the audience to give their own opinion, and he warned them that after performing both works he would ask for a show of hands as to which symphony the audience thought was Haydn’s first.

The Symphony in D (No.1 in Hoboken’s listing) was then given a vivid performance. The opening flared into life in a way reminiscent of contemporary symphonies composed at the court in Mannheim. Perhaps the central Andante, scored only for strings and continuo (Halstead directed all the evening’s Symphonies from the harpsichord), reflected the Baroque period, but here was evidence that Haydn, now in his late twenties, had already begun to merit the sobriquet attributed to him in later years of “The Father of the Symphony”. After the delightfully dance-like finale came the strongly contrasting Symphony No.37 in C – one of Haydn’s ‘Festive’ symphonies, incorporating horns in C-alto and timpani, although several recordings undermine Haydn’s adventurousness by employing neither high horns nor timpani, but Halstead is known to be critical of those who would do such a thing. The original first horn was forced to withdraw from the Festival, and with a mere 24 hours to go Paul Lewis was brought in as replacement and with time for only one rehearsal he performed the part immaculately. The music is bright and forceful in outer movements and the orchestra played with verve. The Andante, placed third as sometimes happened in Haydn’s earlier four-movement works, was particularly gracious.

Now came the time to vote – the printed programme actually gave the date of No.1 as 1759 and that of No. 37 as 1758 but I have never found any documentary evidence to justify 1759 for No.1. Hands were shown and the clear result was that the audience agreed with Haydn’s own opinion and confirmed the D major as the first they believed him to have composed.

Simon Standage

This year violinist Simon Standage led the Orchestra but his commitments also included those of soloist and as leader of two String Quartets. Following the two Symphonies he gave an admirably firm and straightforward performance of Viotti’s Violin Concerto No.22; of his 29, it is by far the most well-known. They are said to have influenced Beethoven, who was 15 years Viotti’s junior. Concerto No.22 is notable for its delightful Hungarian-influenced Finale, and it more than deserves its modest popularity; surely some of the other violin concertos could make an occasional appearance?

Hummel’s Trumpet concerto in E, another virtuosic piece, followed. This was played on the keyed trumpet by Crispian Steele Perkins, who preceded his performance with a short lecture on the instrument, stressing that it was very short-lived in musical history but nevertheless important. The complicated-looking trumpet he used was a further development of the more primitive version which was available to Haydn for his own trumpet concerto of a few years earlier. I should guess that it is impossible to be note-perfect on such a device but there were no serious blemishes, and the playing in the outer movements was full of verve. The slow movement showed that the Romantic period was beginning to take shape, and displayed how effective lyrical trumpet writing could be. Unexpectedly, some touches of vibrato were used along with the occasional decorative semi-trill, but convincingly so because these effects were occasional and then only for particular effect. Steele Perkins is a great historian so I feel this probably represented the performing style of the period.

The concert ended with the rarely-performed Symphony No.29 of Haydn’s, which is unusually comfortable and lyrical in style; the orchestra played expressively and the melodies were shaped with eloquence. A quaint feature of the work is the Trio section of the minuet which seems to consist entirely of a simple accompaniment to a melody which Haydn appears to have forgotten to compose. How suitable then that Anthony Halstead chose to improvise a melodic phrase or two on the harpsichord – it would have sounded very bare without it.

Second Day

The second day of the festival provided two concerts featuring performances of String Quartets. This gave me some concern about the otherwise attractive programming in this year’s Festival because the final work in both was a substantial String Quartet by Mozart – each longer than any of the companion Haydn works. Both concerts took place in the main venue – St Leonard’s Church, but the size of the venue meant that it reduced the ‘presence’ of the sound considerably.

Salomon Quartet

The lunchtime programme featured the English Haydn Ensemble; the players are from the English Haydn Orchestra led by Simon Standage – leader of the well-known Salomon Quartet. For the second year I find myself highly impressed by the way in which the it gives the feeling of being a unified quartet that is used to playing together even though we know it not to be the case. To save repeated comments in further reviews I have to say that yet again that I felt very uncomfortable at the incomprehensible decision in Minuets to take both internal repeats before the trio sections but only the first one afterwards. This was so in all cases where Simon Standage led either the English Haydn Ensemble or the Salomon Quartet. In 2007 I wrote: “I shall continue to complain if I hear this method employed again” and indeed I have been forced to make similar comments in the interim because I am positive that this was never the composer’s intention. This apart, I enjoyed the sturdy, slightly unrefined rendering of Haydn’s famous ‘Bird’ Quartet, with its carefully thought-out tempos. The potentially dark Scherzo was given a reading swifter and lighter than usual, and the delightful Finale was rhythmically strong within a suitably fast tempo.

Simon Standage was critical of the quality of Pleyel’s Quartet No.3 in C, but it proved to be a cheerful enough piece with a jolly Finale. The concert ended with Mozart’s ‘The Hunt’ Quartet K458, and certainly the hunting elements were strongly brought out. The Minuet (placed second) was interpreted in a gentle manner, therefore the very spacious approach to the subsequent slow movement did make the area of quiet thoughtfulness appear to last a very long time.

The evening brought a very different style of performance from the young Chiaroscuro Quartet. They were formed eight years ago and are truly pan-European in its nationalities, being Russian, Spanish, Swedish and French. This Quartet has very individual features: with the exception of the cellist it plays standing and it has no reservations with moving about, for example when a dramatic moment was nearing, the leader seemed to approach her score stealthily in the manner of a cat preparing to attack its prey; all the players’ movements seemed relevant to the music being played and yet this was not disturbing in the least – just another way of performing. Another difference was the very extensive use of rubato – it was real rubato in that the phrases were stretched and moulded but the basic flow of tempo remained. I think it unlikely that this represented performing practice in the 18th century but the expressive shaping displayed a passionate, if personal feeling for the music. Certain movements – such as the fiery finale to Haydn’s ‘Lark’ Quartet were not given such subjective treatment – this was notably fast, fiery and accurate but elsewhere the players presented a thought-provoking way of looking at composers’ music and they were in their element when bringing out the essentially Hungarian nature of the Minuet to Haydn’s Opus 20 Number 4. Somehow the Quartet’s flexible approach to Mozart’s Quartet K428 seemed to make it sprawl. Mozart does not attempt to be as tightly-knit as Haydn when composing his Quartets but the Chiaroscuro’s expansiveness left the impression of lengthiness, although the exceptional technique of the players was never in question. One further feature of this ensemble was its very delicate tone and certainly the large space of St. Leonard’s Church did make its presentation sonically understated despite the conviction of the challenging interpretations.

Third Day

On Friday 7th June the lunchtime recital took place at St. Mary’s Church, a short way from the main venue. The acoustic here is more generous, and though still not ideal for a small ensemble, it gave more bloom to the instruments. The Quartet this time was the Salomon String Quartet, which has been led by Simon Standage for over thirty years. Good though the English Haydn Ensemble was, the Salomon Quartet was a step above in terms of polish and the all important subtleties of knowing when to yield to the most important instrumental line. The character of the leader’s firm direction remained, and it certainly suited Haydn’s superb Opus 77 Number 1, with its touching, deeply-felt Adagio. The companion was Beethoven’s very first Quartet, Opus 18 Number 1, played with directness – since recent changes of personnel, the tendency of the Salomon Quartet to relax when a double bar is in sight has long gone; it now plays more straightforwardly, and I find this a characteristic of the leader’s view of 18th century music as a whole. This choice of programme seems to have been a subtle preparation for the evening concert, which featured Haydn’s Last Symphony and Beethoven’s First.

Despite the modest number of strings in the Orchestra, Anthony Halstead achieved excellent balance in Haydn’s London Symphony (No.104). Finale apart, the tempos were fairly broad. This was a performance of considerable nobility, and the surge of the Minuet was bracing: unhurried but a real dance and what a relief to have the Trio commence strictly in tempo, so often other conductors lean with ponderous emphasis on the first four notes. Mozart’s Concerto No.23 K488 was given a fluent reading by Yoko Kaneko using a fortepiano which was slightly dry in tone but admirably even from top to bottom; not the most colourful, but it balanced skilfully against the orchestra. After the interval the necessary pace and fire was then added to Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto in D with its famous Hungarian Finale. This is an immensely popular work and enthusiasts may say that the fortepiano does not quite have quite the impact that can be heard on recordings by a double-manual harpsichord, but piano philosophy requires a different approach to achieve sparkle and brilliance and that is the essence of the whole piece; in the event Kaneko combined elegance and urgency to good effect. In Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 Halstead again achieved a big-band sound from his 30-strong orchestra, and impressed through dramatic dynamic contrasts and driving rhythms without resorting to excessive speed.

Fourth Day

Ignace Joseph Pleyel (1757-1831)

Saturday morning provided one of the gems of the Festival – a visit to Acton Round Church – followed, as always, by coffee and biscuits at the home of the owners of the estate. The programme consisted of two Haydn Quartets and one by his pupil Ignace Pleyel. The Quartet was once again the English Haydn Ensemble, and it seemed a little more polished than previously, certainly the intimate surroundings made them sound more positive than hitherto. In past Festivals a greater number of such venues have been used, and perhaps the organisers might consider reviving this use of other churches in the vicinity. Substantial audience numbers indicate that Festival goers have no problem in making the short journeys to out-of town locations.

There can be no doubt of the superiority of Haydn’s writing shown in the forthright performance of his Opus 64 Number 3 in B flat, but comparison with the contemporary B flat work by Pleyel was interesting, bearing in mind that the programme listed the concert under the title ‘Haydn’s Friend and Rival’ and it was suitable for Standage to mention the closeness between the 60-year-old Haydn and his 35-year-old ex-pupil at that time. Again the younger man provided a pleasing if unremarkable work, but one absolutely suited to the occasion. Haydn’s Opus 74 Number 3 (Der Reiter) followed, in it the Finale keeps the listener on horseback throughout. How time flies, I recall hearing Simon Standage leading a performance of this work with the Salomon String Quartet at an earlier Haydn Festival and writing: “the equestrian rhythms of the finale were sheer delight” and realise that it was as long ago as 2007. In 2013 with this different group of musicians this is still completely apt. This was a fine, forceful reading.

General Ernst Gideon von Laudon (1717-90) in victory pose at the Battle of Kunersdorf, 1878 portrait

The evening concert at St Leonard’s was notable for music featuring some of Haydn’s most spectacular orchestration. It started with the rarely-played Symphony Number 69 (Laudon). The title was in honour of General Ernst Gideon von Laudon. This was not Haydn’s title and it is likely that the attribution was provided by his publisher Artaria, but in a letter to it Haydn gave his approval to the name. I have considered this to be one of Haydn’s weaker works. This was therefore another opportunity to review that thought. This concert performance at once told me why I had considered recordings I had heard as poor, because Halstead used the horns in high C – no recording has ever done so, in fact all of them put the horns down an octave. I had always thought that the horns should be at the higher pitch and I am pleased to note that other writers on the subject such as Richard Wigmore and David Wyn Jones take the same view. Hearing live a sound that had resided only in my head was a revelation and the music now became fully alive. It has all the brilliance of Haydn’s other Festive symphonies scored in the same manner and it no longer seems a weak work. One reason lies in that after the grandeur of the opening, the second subject proves to be a very ordinary tune, so some reservations remain, but this forceful performance was full of conviction. The slow movement quaintly programmed as ‘Adagio; andante’ (my score gives it as Un poco adagio più tosto andante) has often had seemed unduly languorous, but Halstead’s flowing tempo now made it seem tender and just the right length.

J. C. Bach’s Sinfonia Concertante in E followed. It features four solo parts which were skilfully rendered by Simon Standage and David Lewis (violins) Christophe Coin (cello) and Maria-Tecia Andreotti (flute) – the latter two being members of the Christophe Coin Trio that gave a concert on the following day. This is a tuneful but subdued work in contrast with the next piece, a Cello Concerto by Anton Kraft, who was Haydn’s leading cellist in the Orchestra at Eszterháza. This performance is bound to reignite the discussion about Haydn’s popular Cello Concerto Number 2 in D, which for years was assumed to have been by Kraft, and by some still is, although the existence of an autograph full score in the Austrian National Library is a strong contrary argument, yet who knows what input Kraft might have had – after all they were good friends and Haydn was not a cellist. The interesting thing about Kraft’s Concerto in C, Opus 4, is that it is less discursive than Haydn’s uncharacteristically lengthy work in D, and Kraft’s Finale certainly livens up the tuneful but serious atmosphere created thus far. Marked ‘Rondo a la Cossacca’ it has a delightful dance rhythm which changes for the latter part of the movement into a syncopated, even livelier version of the dance. Beset by considerable trouble in obtaining the rare score and parts, this was something of a triumph for all who participated in presenting music to which scarcely anyone could have been familiar.

Empress Maria Theresia (1717-80) in 1759 by Martin van Meytens

The evening ended with one of Haydn’s most brilliant compositions: Symphony Number 48 in C (Maria Theresia). The title is very appropriate and was applied in order to commemorate the visit of the Empress Maria Theresia to Eszterháza, although researches indicate that the work was unlikely to have been performed during that event. Halstead drove the music forward excitingly – as an expert horn player himself he would have appreciated the skill of those instrumentalists in their strikingly, virtuosic parts. Certainly to play in C-alto is demanding enough, but the elaborate passages in the key of F in the slow movement are no less challenging. This was fine music-making, the orchestra played with great skill and the tempos were ideal – in particular the Minuet was very grand, and I was even able to hear those extraordinary low Cs on the basses in the Trio. As for the Finale, it was fiery throughout and the modest-sized orchestra ended the work in a blaze of glory fit for an empress.

Fifth Day

On the Sunday – the final day of the Festival – a chamber concert took place in the spacious St. Peter’s Church, Worfield. The D major Trio by Pleyel and the G major by Haydn are standard works for Flute Trios. The timbre of Pleyel’s Trio is interesting – perhaps of greater significance than the melodic content itself. The Haydn is a solid workmanlike piece composed just before his London visit for an English publisher. Unusually for this composer, the structure seems to sprawl, and in this performance all the tempos seemed similar from movement to movement – even the Finale is marked ‘Allegro moderato’. In assessing the readings of these works the word ‘dreamy’ came to mind – music for a summer Sunday afternoon. The skilled writing of Joseph Wolfl (1773-1812), a pupil of both Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn, proved impressive – how valuable it is to have lesser-known contemporaries of Joseph Haydn played at the Festival. The Wolfl Duo for Cello and Piano, though slight, was skilfully wrought – ‘Duo’ rather than ‘Cello Sonata’ is certainly the most a suitable title because the piano part is so important. The approach from both instrumentalists remained placid however, the spacious acoustic softened the tone of the instruments and nothing disturbed the serenity of this peaceful afternoon in the English countryside.

In the evening St. Leonard’s Church was the venue for the last concert and provided a programme that had also represented the final event at the English Haydn Festival on certain previous occasions; so once again John Moore conducted Haydn’s Creation. The English text was used. Bass Andrew Slater is a regular artist at the Festival, and, once again, while praising his powerful, admirably secure voice, his diction was also excellent. The narrative recitatives and arias in the early part of the oratorio are very important, and verbal precision is essential. The slightly more florid nature of the tenor arias was projected by Daniel Norman with similar clarity, and the soprano part – more akin to Haydn’s ‘operatic’ style – was presented with much sensitivity and no little power by Natalie Clinton-Griffiths. Being familiar with John Moore’s mature interpretation of The Creation I found his slight changes of view over the years interesting. His approach to the opening “Representation of Chaos” has always been notable for its breadth; this year it felt even more dramatic, and one of the greatest moments in all music, when the chorus boldly sings “and there was light” was shattering in its force. Any conductor who pinpoints the importance of this passage surely has true sympathy for the whole work.

The Haydn Festival Chorus must be very familiar with Moore’s direction (the majority of its members also sing under him in the Shrewsbury School Community Choir). It responded with verve and its ensemble was admirable. I was particularly impressed with its control in the fortissimo passages. The conductor’s tempos seemed faster on this occasion. An interesting example was the final Duet by Adam and Eve – John Moore always moves quite swiftly here – a considerable advantage as this eight or nine minute sequence is very sentimental and can often languish. Three-quarters the way through, the tempo quickens and a bouncing dance-rhythm rounds off the section. Certainly I do not recall hearing this passage taken as fast as this before. It was a surprising departure but I liked the effect. Thus with a powerful Amen Chorus (where breadth of tempo returned) the English Haydn Festival 2013 was brought to an end.

Again the Festival in Bridgnorth was a success – the extra day (five as against four in 2012) was an excellent bonus giving a substantial feel to the whole project. There have been nine day-festivals in the past but five still seems comfortable whereas the four of 2012 seemed rather brief. A wealth of Haydn was presented, and where else can one go to hear so much of his orchestral music, especially when this year’s BBC Promenade concerts provide not a single note of Haydn? I also enjoy the inclusion of lesser-known contemporaries and long may this continue. I am sure that in future the occasional Symphony by, for example, Dittersdorf, Stamitz or Vanhal would also appeal to Haydn-lovers and since it is a Haydn Festival, what about some music by Joseph’s brother Michael?

  • This is an extended version of the report due to appear in the 2013 edition of the Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal
  • For details of the Society’s aims and activities, please contact the Director, Professor Denis McCaldin, at d.mccaldin@lancaster.ac.uk
  • English Haydn Festival

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