There is always a sense of relief when you arrive in your seats at Angel Place after having passed the god-awful infernal din emanating from the Ivy night club, and there is that magic moment of pure silence just before the musicians are about to play.
In this instance our anticipation was rewarded by the sonorous Australian Haydn Ensemble playing the gentle opening of Mozart’s Symphony No 29 in A, two centuries and a world away from the poisonous Ivy.
The full, albeit fairly modest resources of the orchestra were present for this concert; 4 firsts, 4 seconds, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass, 2 oboes, bassoon and 2 horns plus a harpsichord. The “ensemble” in their name is well deserved. They really listen to each other and consciously work towards a pleasing combined sound. These musicians are mostly in their 30s or there abouts; old enough to have substantial experience but yet full of youthful enthusiasm.
Unfashionable though it is to criticise Mozart, the opening piece, written when the composer was 18, was probably musically the least interesting on the program. This reservation is in no way meant to take credit away from the AHE’s performance. In the final movement for example, their forthright tone, flamboyant string flourishes and horns intentionally penetrating the texture showed a thorough understanding of the music. However, there were some wonderful compositional moments like the muted melody of the second movement with its sparse accompaniment, and the darkness of the minor sections in the final movement.
The virtuoso harpsichord player Erin Helyard conducted this concert from the continuo. Standing bent over the keyboard with your back to the audience has unintended visual consequences. One should probably either stand or sit and nothing in between. It was quite a relief when, for the CPE Bach Keyboard Concerto in C, the harpsichord was turned side on to the stage and the soloist remained seated for the entire piece; and the music did not suffer. The harpsichord lid was also attached (at full tilt) to project what was intended towards the audience.
Helyard playing of the concerto was impressive indeed. His articulation always clear and well thought through, tempos were sprightly and rits and rubatos appropriate and musical. A consummate performance.
The concerto and the other CPE Bach piece on the program, the Sinfonia Wq 179 in E flat, were both a delight. At times elegant and at others passionate and dramatic. Sometimes the subtlest changes in the texture had a profound effect. For example, there is a passage in the concerto’s thoughtful slow movement where the orchestra plays quiet chords under a solo passage on the harpsichord. The harpsichord then rests for a few bars as the orchestra repeats the same chordal passage and the only change made is that the double bass changes from pizzicato to bowed. This minor little change profoundly changes the character of the orchestral passage, filling it out to a deep rich sonorous chorus. A tribute both to the ingenuity and courage of the composer and the execution of the performers.
This is a good moment to mention the great sensitivity and subtlety of Jacqueline Dossor’s bass playing. The bass is in many ways a difficult instrument; it is slow to speak and often in this music it “merely” doubles the cello part at the octave. Despite this, Dossor’s playing is always musical, textually balanced, intonation accurate and never in any way obtrusive or merely plonking away.
CPE’s music is not always such a sharp break from the Baroque as one might imagine; there are many passages where repeated chords go through a cycle of fifths as old JS might have done. What is different is the sudden unexpected harmonic turn or dramatic forte with which the cord progression is interrupted. CPE sits at the cusp of this point in music history which turns us towards Beethoven. It is always these points of transition where interesting things become possible. With old JS we have a sense of arrival. With CPE we have a sense of departure; an opening out of possibilities, I feel the AHE intentionally occupies this space; as if they hold a world in each hand and consciously inhabit the space between.
The final work on the program was Haydn’s Symphony No 52 in C minor. The Sturm und Drang style is meant to shock, not to make the audience comfortable. The AHE take their job very seriously in this regard! Often in this piece one is lulled into a sense of security with a quiet uncontentious section in the music, only to make the sudden loud and unexpected key change more shocking.
I have a confession to make. I am one of these weird people who on occasions experience what is known as a kinaesthesia; experiencing one sense (music in this case) through a sensory pathway other than the aural one. It does not happen often but when a group of musicians absolutely play as one, I experience a sort of collective aura over the group on stage which pulsates with the beat of the music. It is very thrilling when this happens; it is like a long slow motion cold shiver. I experienced this during AHE’s performance of the second and third movement of the Haydn. I am grateful to them for this. Their ensemble playing was perfection.
Throughout this concert the AHE revels in keeping the audience on its aural “toes”. It makes for a tense and exciting performance, full of life and intensity. A stunning concert upon which to finish the season for 2017.