The highly-anticipated night of firsts for the Australian Haydn Ensemble and they did not disappoint. The five-year-old group performed at the City Recital Hall for the first time and launched their first CD “The Haydn Album” on the night.
It would have been a first for many in the large audience to listen to quite familiar pieces played on period instruments. A real treat for lovers of authentic performance practice, better known as historically-informed performance (HIP)!
Fortepianist, Erin Helyard, conducted from the keyboard during the first half for both Michael Haydn’s Symphony No 25 in G major MH 334, a piece generally attributed to WA Mozart as his Symphony No 37 “Linz”, and Mozart’s Keyboard Concerto No 14 in E-flat K449. As Helyard later explained, the fortepiano was positioned facing the audience and with the unvarnished lid off, as was the practice in the late eighteenth century.
Michael Haydn’s Symphony was played with great expressiveness and rhythmic drive. The highlight was the middle Andante movement where the period winds – flute, bassoon, and oboe – took turns to play the melody, emphasising the different timbres compared to their modern counterparts.
Mozart’s Keyboard Concerto, with Helyard as soloist and conductor, certainly confirmed how different a fortepiano with no pedals and a smaller dynamic range, mainly due to its straight strings (rather than crossed) and wooden frame, sounded compared to the modern pianoforte. The first movement Moderato-Allegro vivace was full of restless energy, piano and orchestra often contradicting each other in melody, tonality, and rhythm, particularly the latter. The second movement Andantino, in the dominant major B-flat, reflected its ethereal nature. The third and final movement, Allegro ma non troppo, was a most agile fugal-like rondo.
World-renowned cellist Daniel Yeadon, the soloist in Josef Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major Hob VIIb/1, brought a fresh interpretation and articulation to his performance. His research into historical sources led to freer use of tempo modification, more expression through the use of grace notes rather than straight semiquavers, and the specific use of vibrato as an ornament rather than for continuous tone production.
This time, the use of gut strings on the soloist’s cello reminded us of the lighter sound produced by stringed instruments back in the composer’s day. A slightly different bowing technique for the shorter notes was evident, as was the greater use of portamento throughout. Many challenging high notes, especially in the second and third movements, were made to look simple by his great technique.
The concert finished with Haydn’s dramatic Symphony No 83 in G minor Hob I:83 La Poule (“The Hen”), a good example of the Sturm and Drang style of the time. The nickname was derived from the clucking, scratching, and pecking reflected by the dotted exchanges of violins and oboe. The third movement Minuet and Trio was inspired by Haydn’s life in the Hungarian countryside. Throughout the piece, Helyard improvised on the fortepiano, providing support for the ensemble with intermittent phrases, chords, and repeated notes, as was the practice in the late eighteenth century. This was most evident in the lyrical second movement. The Vivace finale capped off a very satisfying period performance on period instruments, graced by the presence of the Australian Haydn Ensemble’s new Patron Dame Marie Bashir.