★★★★☆ This all-Haydn finale to its 2015 season shows why this group is one of Australia's finest period ensembles.

Australian enthusiasts of Baroque and early Classical repertoire are fortunate to have a number of fine period instrumental groups to choose from. The Australian Haydn Ensemble is one of these, and their all-Haydn final concert of the year was a fine display of 18th century music making. The concert included Joseph Haydn’s three ‘Tageszeiten’ symphonies (symphonies 6, 7 and 8), while Erin Helyard performed and led the D major Harpsichord concerto. The three symphonies were written while Haydn was resident at the Esterhazy Schloss, and are entitled ‘Le Matin’, ‘Le Midi’ and ‘Le Soir’ (morning, midday and evening). The resonances with Vivaldi’s illustrative ‘Four Seasons’ concerti are clear; indeed Prince Paul Esterhazy had discovered Vivaldi’s music while in Naples and had brought it back to Eisenstadt.

The ensemble did an excellent job of portraying sunrise in Symphony No. 6, with dynamics attentively observed. The symphony also incorporates a number of concertante moments – it is understood that Haydn would have led these symphonies from the violin, and therefore wrote supremely virtuosic momentsfor himself. In this role, Marc Destrube ably led, although at times he suffered from a slightly unsure tone in the more challenging passages. Indeed, the first item as a whole was a little unsettled, with a number of split notes in the horns. The ensemble was at its best in the Allegro Finale, with exuberant playing in the tutti passages.

Symphony No. 7 was more sure-footed, with scintillating exchanges between strings and winds in the first movement Allegro, and fine tonal contrasts between the shimmering passages in the lower strings and the higher parts in the violin. The precision of the brass was also noteworthy, chiming in with what sounded like the distant calls of a midday foxhunt. The opening of the Adagio was sensitive and moving, while Dastrube created a tender sound in the exposed recitative passages. The final two movements showed that this ensemble is capable of pulling off the gallant (in the Menuetto) as well as the ebullient (in the Allegro Finale), with Melissa Farrow on baroque flute faultless in the latter.

After the interval, Helyard, fresh from his brilliant directorship of Pinchgut Opera earlier this month, took the audience on a ride through the twists and turns of Haydn’s harpsichord concerto. Helyard proved himself to be no mere show pony, with very nuanced shifts in tempo and considered stylistic quirks. The highlight was the final movement, Rondo all’Unagerese. Helyard was more than up to the supremely difficult virtuosic passages, polishing them off with a few crushed grace notes and trills along the way. The tone was lighthearted and fun throughout, and some of the interactions between soloist and ripieno were riveting.

As the final streaks of light vanished on the harbour to our right of the Utzon room, the ensemble fittingly finished with Symphony No. 8, ‘Le Soir’. The opening quotes Gluck’s comic opera ‘The Devil to Pay’, and the different sections of the ensemble gave the triple time a rollicking feel. The second movement was lyrical without being saccharine, while Jacqueline Dossor admirably navigated the challenges of the double bass solo in the Menuetto. The final movement, La Tempesta, was fitting given the inclement weather rolling through Sydney, though the staccato in the strings, various outbursts in the brass, and deft arpeggio passages in the winds reminded the audience that bad weather can still be a time for merriment and lightheartedness.