A delightful program based on Paris in the late eighteenth century sufficiently warmed one’s soul on a cold winter’s night. In the presence of their esteemed Patron, former NSW Governor, Dame Marie Bashir, the Australian Haydn Ensemble (AHE), along with guest soloist Melvyn Tan, gave another wonderful historically-informed performance. The vast majority of the strings played on period instruments while the winds played on reproductions of period instruments, the latter largely because human saliva constantly blown down wooden tubes does not exactly encourage the preservation of those instruments! Tan played on a replica fortepiano which looked like a small wooden baby grand piano.
The first work was the Australian Premiere of little-known French composer Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Symphony in D Op. 11, No. 2. The reason why Chevalier de Saint-Georges was known as “the black Mozart” was evident in this short 3-movement piece. The AHE displayed controlled briskness and rhythmic vitality in the first movement Allegro presto. The very short second movement Andante flowed into the vivacious third movement Presto with its rapid tutti passages and changes in dynamics. The way the chamber ensemble was positioned, with the first violins on the left and the second violins on the right, facilitated the sound of the interplay of those two violin sections in this movement.
Artistic Director and AHE leader, Skye McIntosh, introduced world-renowned guest fortepianist Melvyn Tan prior to his performance of WA Mozart’s Keyboard Concerto No 18 in B-flat K456, a piece dedicated to a blind young renowned Austrian pianist named Maria Theresa von Paradis.
It was rather interesting to watch Singapore-born London-based Tan conduct the AHE from the fortepiano, sitting his music on a stand to the left of his instrument, a delicate object conducive to playing Mozart. Tan seemed to be overpowered at times by the AHE, particularly when he played along with the orchestra in an improvisatory continuo role (often repeated chords) as was often done in that era, even though the fortepiano lid was fully open. The limited dynamic range of the fortepiano also contributed to this sound imbalance.
Head bowed, Tan displayed a lightness of touch and expressiveness which was well-suited to Mozart and was most evident in the cadenza at the end of the bright first movement Allegro vivace. The winds were prominent in the slower, somewhat melancholic second movement, a series of five variations on a theme, in G minor, the relative minor. The third movement, also Allegro vivace back in the tonic key, began with the fortepiano presenting the cheerful first subject. Tan continued with lovely controlled clarity, finishing with a cadenza before the short coda.
The second half provided the highlight of the evening, namely Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 85 in B flat “La Reine” (The Queen), Hob I:85, the fourth of his set of six Paris symphonies, so-called because they were commissioned from Paris in 1785 by none other than Chevalier de Saint-Georges! It was nicknamed La Reine as it was purported to be Queen Marie-Antoinette’s favourite Paris Symphony. It is without a doubt one of the most attractive symphonies composed by Haydn.
The first movement Adagio-vivace commenced in typical elegant French overture style before the lively alternation of calm and rapid phrases. The second theme-and-variations movement Romanze, based on a French folk melody, was beautifully serene with the prominent flute solos repeatedly conveying images of chirping birds. In contrast, the third movement Menuetto and Trio was based on an old Austrian folk dance or Laendler. The fourth and final Presto movement was a fitting way to finish the concert, brilliant in tone and colour, as well as execution by the AHE.
After much applause from an appreciative audience, the AHE played an encore, another discovery from Chevalier de Saint-Georges called a Dance Movement. It was here that the conviviality of all the members of the ensemble was clearly displayed.