It was with great excitement that I attended my first Australian Haydn Ensemble (AHE) concert at the Sydney Opera House. Being a lover of Baroque and Classical period music, I had often heard and read about this particular group’s expertise in historically-informed performance since its formation in 2011. Well, they certainly didn’t disappoint.
Unfortunately, due to illness, Opera Australia principal soprano Taryn Fiebig was a late withdrawal, indeed only four days before the first of the AHE’s four concerts titled “Haydn and Hasse” in Canberra, Bowral, and Sydney. The concert program was modified to “Haydn and Mozart” to suit her more-than-capable replacement, Celeste Lazarenko, who was the real star of the evening.
The concert started with the rarely-played String Quartet in C MH313 attributed to Michael Haydn, the younger brother of Joseph. Accompanying and directing Skye McIntosh (artistic director and violin), Matthew Greco (second violin), James Eccles (viola), and Anton Baba (cello), was renowned harpsichordist Erin Helyard. His improvised continuo part on the locally-produced Carey Beebe two-manual harpsichord reflected the flexibility in instrumentation playing chamber music in eighteenth-century Europe. At times, Helyard duplicated the violin melody in his left hand, particularly in the second movement Menuetto un poco allegro, which added to its melodiousness.
Helyard introduced the program by commenting that in the days the music was composed, there was a “party culture” associated with music. Musicians went from performing in private homes to giving public concerts, thus producing “pragmatic party animals who used the resources available to them at the time to the best of their abilities”. Very interesting indeed!
Lazarenko joined the ensemble on stage, along with flautist Melissa Farrow and doubles bassist Jacqueline Dossor, to sing WA Mozart’s concert aria “Schon lacht der holde Fruehling” (Spring in its Beauty is already smiling) KV580. This work was dedicated to Josepha Weber, the older sister of Mozart’s wife, Constanze. Its bravura qualities were definitely highlighted by the brilliant coloratura and tessitura passages mainly towards the end of the piece but Lazarenko also showed strength and depth in the tender middle section.
In true historically-informed performance fashion, the chamber arrangement of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.102 in B-flat “Miracle” was divided up, with the first movement Largo, Allegro, Vivace played before interval and the other three movements played after interval. In fact, in the eighteenth century, songs were often presented between movements of a large work like a symphony to create greater anticipation and to provide more variety and contrast. I must say this was another first for me, attending a classical concert where a significant piece was split. Those who hate clapping between movements, eat your heart out!!
Another rarely-performed piece “Scena di Berenice” by Joseph Haydn rounded off the program. It was another virtuosic concert aria with a bravura finale that allowed Lazarenko to display her full range of dynamic changes, phrasing, and expression, both vocal and facial. What was most pleasing were the strong well-produced lower notes in her range. The AHE provided sensitive support, being well-led by the half-standing, half-sitting harpsichordist director Helyard.
The audience was provided with a lovely surprise at the end in the form of an encore by Lazarenko and the entire ensemble. She explained that her week had understandably been a “bit of a whirlwind” while she was met with warm applause. She introduced the piece as being most appropriate for somebody who wished to thank her appreciative audience. “Nehmt meinen Dank” (Take my thanks) by WA Mozart was composed for Aloysia Weber, his first love and another of his wife’s sisters. How lovely and how grateful of Lazarenko to finish with another solid all-round performance reflecting “everywhere we go to distant lands, our heart remains with you“.
Thus ended a most satisfying concert in the Utzon Room of the Opera House where the blinds were up and the audience could view the lovely backdrop of Sydney Harbour at night while listening to sublime late-eighteenth century music.