Feature Review: English Haydn Festival – Bridgnorth 8-12 June 2011

Written by: Antony Hodgson

This is the eighteenth year of the English Haydn Festival and now that the problems caused by the illness and death of its director John Reid resulting in the cancellation of the 2008 Festival have been overcome, a five-day event seems to be fully established. This year provided a very attractive musical menu although the programming did not have quite the flair of 2010 and there was surprisingly little from the earlier part of Haydn’s compositional career. Some ‘Paris’ and ‘London’ Symphonies were certainly the highlights of the Festival and the performances of them were outstanding but comments from those I met suggested that Haydn enthusiasts also look for the less-familiar earlier works that are rarely if ever performed elsewhere. When contemporary 18th-century composers are also included, the lesser-known names will attract the attention and there was just one such example this year, I do understand however that it is far from easy to obtain rare scores and it must be tempting for the organisers sometimes to fall back on a safe Mozart piece as a supplement.

Such reservations do not apply to the extremely attractive opening concert, which included this year’s only early Haydn symphony. This was No.38 and it represented an ideal start. At once it was clear that the English Haydn Orchestra under Anthony Halstead was playing at its very best. Early it may be but this symphony makes its demands on the players, with horns required to play in C-alto, and gentle and subtle dynamics required from the strings. Halstead directed from the harpsichord and here, as throughout the Festival, he had First and Second Violins placed to left and right respectively and frequently required to echo each other’s phrases, particularly in the slow movement. Dynamic contrasts are a feature of Halstead’s thinking, grace-notes are always in style and I warm to his endings of Minuets where he does not endorse the modern habit of leaving out the final two upbeats (a device sometimes suggested by editors but rarely by the composer). In this Minuet Halstead made both repeats after the Trio – something he does only rarely – I have no strong feelings concerning the ongoing discussion about this procedure but it was certainly suitable in this work. Mention must also be made of the prominence of the oboe-writing and Mark Baigent’s brief flourishes.

Following the thrill of No.38’s finale with its high, biting brass a gentler work was presented; Simon Standage gave an elegant performance of the tuneful G major Violin Concerto. No sources confirm that this is by Haydn although it was published by Breitkopf in 1769 along with another concerto known to be genuine, but there is still every reason for this delightful piece to be performed. I particularly liked the straightforward and not-too-long cadenzas; perhaps Standage’s own compositions? Another example of authenticity in this strings-only work was the conductor’s use of both harpsichord and bassoon continuo. We know that Haydn himself once famously declared that a bassoon enhances the bass line. Not for the first time at this Festival, Crispian Steele-Perkins performed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto – a splendidly contrasting work – and again he used his very authentic (and difficult to control) keyed trumpet – we know that an example of this short-lived instrument was used at early performances and all credit to CS-P for conquering it so successfully. One expert avers that the answer to a slipped note on an old instrument of this nature is quickly to turn it into an ornament and then it sounds authentic. This was a fine sturdy reading by an expert in the field.

The concert ended with the ‘Surprise’ Symphony (No.94) and there were several important differences from a conventional reading. Firstly the original trumpet part in high G that Haydn wrote for London but later revised to the easier key of C was used; then the horns in the slow movement were pitched in C-alto, making sense of the beautiful rising phrase late-on which is normally buried when the instruments are at the conventional lower pitch; then in the Minuet, Halstead chose to use long grace-notes thus exactly matching various underlying phrases. I had not heard all three of these ‘period’ choices used since Leslie Jones made his recording of the work back in the late 1960s. All this, when added to convincing tempos (yes even the fast approach to the Andante was successful), made for a dramatic end to the first evening.

The second day was devoted entirely to chamber music. At lunchtime the Rautio Piano Trio was at the spacious St Leonard’s Church – the main venue for concerts – but I am not convinced that this acoustic was ideal for the very refined tone of this skilled young group. Jan Rautio’s fortepiano was notable for its evenness top to bottom and it stayed in tune very well but it is a gentle instrument. On the whole it is pleasing to hear a trio in which the strings are not overwhelmed but at times the piano figuration was overpowered. Nevertheless, considerable artistry was brought to Mozart’s rather lengthy K548 Trio although greater élan was evident in Haydn’s more compact No.36 and his famous No.39 with its ‘Gypsy Rondo’. In this finale there were no exaggerated Gypsy leanings as often applied by others. All in all this was a cultured concert.

The Salomon Quartet returned to the Festival for two concerts – on the evening of the second day and the lunchtime of the third. This year they concentrated on Haydn’s Opus 33 but why only four of them? There was space for the remaining two but instead time was taken up by two works of Mozart. Unfortunately K387 is among his less interesting works although I must concede that I found the stressing of the strange syncopations in the Trio section delightful; Haydn is not the only one to play musical jokes. Haydn’s Quartets were presented in a way which seemed to give a new close-knit sound to this ensemble (with two changes of personnel recently). The players are now a little more direct in their readings and in particular I was impressed with the way in which they played the eponymous joke at the end of Opus 33/2 absolutely straight. The concert ended with Hummel’s jolly Opus 30/3 and here the ensemble took a more forceful view with positive interplay and a really lively, bouncing finale.

Moving from St Leonard’s to St Mary’s Church the next day, the closely-woven sound seemed a little thicker in this more resonant acoustic. Haydn was played in a polished manner although the deep mystery of the Scherzo (not Minuet) of Opus 30/3 was not fully represented. A strong reading of Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet ended the concert – certainly the fire of the Allegro after the introductory dissonances was admirably achieved but I still wish we could have been given the remaining Haydn Quartets. In most years I have complained about the Salomon Quartet’s illogical approach to repeats in Scherzos and Minuets and as long as they do this I shall continue to protest, although this year this irritating habit was only imposed on Haydn.

Larger-scale works were presented at the evening concert commencing with Halstead’s strong reading of Symphony 86. The strange marking ‘Largo-cappriccio’ is at the head of the second movement. I find this confusing but the conductor convinced by adopting a slow tempo, holding it with consistency and ensuring that the rhythm was firm. The rustic Trio to the Minuet was a dancing delight and to hammer home the big chord at the end of the finale’s exposition (it does not appear second time round) showed true understanding of Haydn’s boisterousness.

This is a Joseph Haydn festival and I often regret the absence of his brother Michael. A small redress was made this year by the inclusion of his strange little two-movement Symphony (Garland 32; Perger 23). The audience could not be expected to be familiar with this work so the conductor amusingly suggested that we should ignore the references in the notes to the instrumentation of the slow movement because there isn’t one! The finale however is the happiest of movements and was represented in that way. Mozart’s Piano Concerto K491 was given a fluid, delicately shaped reading by Jan Rautio. It suited his mild-toned fortepiano but I cannot say for sure how this instrument balanced against the orchestra. The balance was ideal; but then I was seated very close to the instrument. There were no flaring outbreaks of vigorous runs in this reading (very much a feature of previous Mozart performances at this venue by regular visitor Ronald Brautigam) but Rautio’s interpretation was carefully proportioned with moderate tempo underpinned by firm rhythm. I was reminded of the tender approach of Wilhelm Kempff but without the added flair brought to the music by that artist. Solo and orchestral phrasing always matched each other admirably. Haydn’s big Symphony 99 ended the concert. At first I felt that the strings were not so immaculate in ensemble as previously but the strength of the playing was admirable and there was a lovely woodwind choir in the slow movement. I am an enthusiast of Halstead’s way with Minuets – especially regarding his immaculate regularity of pulse – but I am less sure about this example because the speed was far too great to permit a sense of the dance and the horns in their exposed upward phrases had little time to hit their notes with Haydn’s implied emphasis. The thing about Halstead’s Minuets is normally his security of rhythm enhanced by the precision with which the downbeat is achieved. I concede that the rapidity of the chosen tempo was enlivening but security of pulse seemed undermined by speed. I did however much admire the finale. One minor yet significant reason lay in an interesting early feature where the first statements of the theme are suffixed by two ‘toots’ from the horns. Sometimes these are played as a comic feature by being made exaggeratedly loud but I do not believe that Haydn intended them as a joke and Halstead’s decision merely to let them stay quietly, as per the score, at the same dynamic level within the flow of the music, was very convincing.

Next morning at the delightful Acton Round church The Denner Ensemble presented woodwind gems from the eighteenth-century. First we had Johann Wendt in his well-known role as arranger with variations on the slow movement of Haydn’s Symphony 53 (L’Impériale) – the piece delightfully stolen by John Lanchbery in his ballet La fille mal gardée where it was subtly included among Hérold’s music. We were also given one of Wendt’s original compositions – Quartetto concertante for two oboes, cor anglais and bassoon. Then there was an arrangement by van Triebensee (his witty transfiguration of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ movement) and an original trio for two oboes and cor anglais (Opus 87) by Beethoven, better known as a string trio.

Evening at St Leonards brought Haydn’s rarely-performed Symphony 79 – admittedly not one of his greatest but the extraordinary fast ending to the slow movement is a great awakener of inattentive audiences. Halstead was back on form in the folk-like Minuet and the even-more-rustic finale developed cheerfully. I was much impressed by the resuscitation of the Cello Concerto by Franz Xaver Woschitka (1728-1796) – the claim that this was the first performance since the 18th-century seemed very convincing. This work from 1787 is a very well-constructed piece – notable for giving the cellist problems of enormous leaps from high to low – especially in the finale. That movement has a plain folk-like theme, not inspired in itself but Woschitka develops it in an original manner. Pavel Serbin took the demanding writing entirely in his stride. Simon Standage and Adam Romer were soloists in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante (K364). Romer is also violist in the Salomon Quartet but as soloist his instrument seemed to show a fuller, more positive nature – it is unusual in this work to hear the viola at least as strong in sound as the violin but it suits the music and Standage’s contribution was as elegant as ever. Symphony 87 ended the evening, a favourite of Halstead’s for this was his second performance of it at the festival within a few years and it was no less exciting. The orchestra was on fine form. Now I am challenging my memory here but I seem to recall that a few years ago Halstead played the two upbeats to the return of the Minuet yet they were missing here. I am not going to quibble for the sake of two notes because this was a really splendid and tremendously vital performance. I was also delighted by the conductor’s in-joke because at the end of his score Haydn indicates the amount of time required before making the second repeat by writing a bar-and-a-half of rests – clearly the repeat must be made or these extra bars make no sense. Having made the repeat the orchestra came to the end of the work but Halstead still conducted the rests – maybe not everyone got the joke but it was a worthwhile gesture and added to the cheerfulness of the event.

At the large St Peter’s Church Worfield on the final Sunday afternoon the Rautio Trio played two Haydn Trios (38 and 40) and Beethoven’s Opus1/1. Once again the longest work was not by Haydn but the musicians showed how accomplished they were: the players combined naturally where necessary and yielded when appropriate. I still felt a little frustrated at the delicacy of the piano tone and the acoustic made definition a problem but the grace of the performances remained although, however polished the performance, the Beethoven tends not to grip the imagination. In the evening came the final concert, which generated less appeal and there were fewer in the church although it had been very well filled throughout the week. This is where I have doubts about the programming. Firstly, although Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony was advertised, it was replaced by No.34 – far shorter and not one of the composer’s strongest works. The middle of the concert was mostly taken up by arias from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and then, after its Overture, we had arias from The Impresario – there was fine singing by Catherine Bott, Miranda Westcott, Daniel Norman and Andrew Slater – but what have assorted chunks from operas by another composer got to do with Haydn? More reasonably the Overture to and excerpts from Haydn’s Armida were also played. Everything was introduced by Catherine Bott – she was witty, engaging and always informative – we enjoyed her beautiful singing too. Eventually we came to some substantial Haydn – Symphony 97 – and Halstead’s performance was majestic. Here the Beethovenian opening movement was a true precursor to the 19th-century. There was firm rhythm throughout and although the orchestra was probably very tired at the end of this long concert, enthusiasm remained – even through the demanding whirl of string figuration in the finale.

Yet again this was a successful Festival the only one in the UK to my knowledge to celebrate Haydn – we certainly need it because in our upcoming most famous musical festival of all – the BBC Proms – I see no Haydn. He will survive and after its temporary recent troubles I am convinced that the English Haydn Festival will remain a permanent fixture.

  • This is an extended version of the report due to appear in the 2011 edition of the Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal. It is posted here with permission
  • 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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