How good to have the shutters opened on a window into the 18th century orchestral world of Joseph Haydn in this exceptional concert by the Australian Haydn Ensemble. Too often Haydn's orchestral music is performed as if it is a tennis match, with themes lobbed back and forth enthusiastically, but with little evidence that these ideas create a greater whole. The musicians of the AHE perform their repertoire with passion and sophistication to recreate both the delicacy and the rumbustious exuberance of the composer.
The softest and most deliciously hairy pianissimo opening to the Adagio-Allegro of the Symphony No. 6 had the audience attuning their ears to the acoustic of the hall and the sensitivity of the period instruments. I am always thrilled to observe that when an ensemble is deeply focused and united in their musical purpose, the sound is clearly audible even in the most difficult venues. The skill of Marc Destrube' direction in collaboration with Skye McIntosh as artistic director had much to do with the disciplined beauty of the sound. As the setting sun shone through the arched windows, the dark, lovely tones of the cellos and bass resonated in the Adagio, to be followed in the Menuetto e Trio by the contrasting voice of the bassoon. The two horns gave exuberant blasts in the Finale: Allegro, complementing the grand melody and the skittering strings.
Symphony No. 7 began with a joyous orchestral shout, and a stirring duet between the two principal violins in the Adagio, developing into a wonderful rhythmic groove in the Allegro – with an undercurrent of excitement. Melissa Farrow on flute gave a shining performance, to be sustained throughout the concert with her colleague, Mikaela Oberg.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well the sound of the harpsichord travelled in the Albert Hall in Erin Helyard's performance of the Harpsichord Concerto in D Major. From the moment the first notes of the Vivace leapt into life, the brilliance of the harpsichord carried the ensemble along in perfect sympathy. The dreamy mood of the Adagio provided a contrasting interlude before the spectacular Rondo all'Ungares burst into life, with its impelling dance rhythms, surprise melodic shifts and gypsy fiddle stylistic elements.
Symphony No 8, "Le Soir", revealed a playful treatment of a melody from Gluck's comic opera Le diabolo à quatre. In the spacious Andante, the soloists engaged in conversations interspersed with dramatic tutti orchestral passages. The woodwinds and horns took centre stage in the stately Menuetto, the double bass solo adding a growling voice to the arrangement. Last of all came the torrential downpour of notes from the strings developing into a fully fledged storm in the triumphant final Presto – la Tempesta.
This concert was a revelation about the diversity of sounds Haydn could command as a composer. It is not too late to purchase subscriptions for the 2016 AHE concert series – what better Christmas gift could one give than to offer evenings in which time is conquered and the musical past becomes the present?